British thespian John Smeathers has returned to Buffalo for the ninth consecutive winter. Why, you ask? So do his friends back home.
A respected actor and director, the Manchester resident, 59, arrives each year to play Ebenezer Scrooge in Alleyway Theatre's annual production -- this year is their 24th -- of Neal Radice's adaptation of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."
The role of the curmudgeonly miser in need of a reality check is his favorite, Smeathers said. And Radice's adaptation offers a straight-ahead take on the classic story.
The beloved 1843 tale is in fact one of the most adapted novels in history. It has been translated in Western theme, in anime and starring a cast of vegetables. And the iconic Scrooge has been played by such varied interpreters as Mr. Magoo, Bill Murray, Alvin the Chipmunk and Susan Lucci.
But Alleyway Theatre likes it best "straight down the middle," to quote Smeathers, who sees eye-to-eye with Radice. Radice, who plays Dickens in the show, is also Alleyway's artistic director and directs the production.
"I intended this adaptation to be as true to Dickens' original as possible," Radice writes in his production notes. "And I intended it to last. The novel is appreciated and loved in the same way, and for the same reasons, as traditional Christmas carols. We hold them sacred as much for their message as for their constancy."
Smeathers agrees that constancy is comforting.
"In this world of fast change, people need reliable anchors," he said by phone from rehearsals this week. "We come back to them. Alleyway's 'A Christmas Carol' is one of those things that you come back to, that can become part of family tradition."
Another motivation for Smeathers to hop the pond each year is that he admires Radice's work ethic.
"Neal is a consummate actor and director," Smeathers said. "One reason that the show is so long-running is that we get directors' notes after every performance -- that attention to detail is evident."
Those details include an appropriately sized Tiny Tim.
"The kids that play Tiny Tim are all cute, but they keep growing!" he said. "I have to pick them up, so every year or so, we've got to get a new one."
Radice, who acknowledges both pop psychology and pop cultural influences on his "simple and forthright" adaptation, imbues the ghost of Christmas Past with the power to make the character relive his memories.
"This magic power seems a reasonable extension both at literal and psychological levels," he writes. "If one accepts Scrooge's ordeal as essentially internal, then his experience with Christmas Past may be like that of one who dreams the past through original eyes; experiencing memories of youth as young again."
WHAT: "A Christmas Carol"
WHEN: Through Dec. 23
WHERE: Alleyway Theatre, 1 Curtain Up Alley
TICKETS: $30 general, $20 students
INFO: 852-2600 or www.alleyway.com