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Cleveland gets its own twist on a Dickens' classic
'A Carol for Cleveland' takes a Les Roberts novella and sets it to stage, recreating a snowy 1970's Christmas in Public Square

Morning Edition Host
Amanda Rabinowitz
A Carol for Cleveland is a new play by Eric Coble based on the novella by Les Roberts
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A twist on a Charles Dickens’ classic is now Cleveland’s own story at the PlayHouse Square. In just six months, local playwright Eric Coble took a 32-page short story written by Northeast Ohio crime novelist Les Roberts and turned it into “A Carol For Cleveland.” Making its debut this month, WKSU's Amanda Rabinowitz reports the play is one that any Northeast Ohioan can relate to.
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A Carol for Cleveland 
Public Square during the 1970’s is where the audience meets Ed Podolak, a laid-off steelworker from Pennsylvania, who leaves his family and hops a Greyhound bus looking for work. He eventually finds himself at a rundown Cleveland hotel, depressed and alone on Christmas Eve.

In this story, the character of Podolak is the Scrooge. As in the original A Christmas Carol, Podolak hits  bottom before eventually finding redemption.

Play wright Eric Coble, who’s lived in Cleveland Heights for about 20 years, was approached by Cleveland Play House Artistic Director Michael Bloom about turning the 32-page Les Roberts novella into a play. Usually, that process takes years. Coble took just a couple months this summer to complete the script.

"I tend to write up in the attic away from my family. And so it was about 100 degrees in July as I was up writing, and I was trying desperately to think of snow in Cleveland, snow in Public Square, snow [laughs]. So I was playing Christmas carols constantly all the way through and I [credit] Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis with getting me through the process.

Seventeen of the 22 cast members are from the Cleveland area, including Charles Kartali, who plays Ed Podolak. Kartali says “A Carol for Cleveland” takes a classic Christmas tale and integrates it into Northeast Ohio – past and present.  

"Previously our connection with our Scrooges are 18th century rich, English guys…[laughs] So it’s kind of nice to see a working-man’s Scrooge, a guy whose problem isn’t that he has too much money, it’s that he doesn’t have any. So I could get his Scrooge-ness."

Playwright Eric Coble changed a few things from Les Roberts’ novella.First, he added flashbacks throughout Ed Podolak’s life to flesh out the story. He also set the play about two decades earlier than Roberts’ story, set in the 1990’s.

"If you say late-70’s in Cleveland, everyone gets an instant image of this city, which was down on its luck, which was really kind of faltering. And it allowed us to have I think that kind of distance, to where we can look back and it feels more almost like a fable because it took place back then as opposed to more recently"

Coble wanted to make sure that the city of Cleveland itself is a central character. Set designers built a bright, intricate set where artificial snow falls and the architecture is true to the city’s landscape.  

"There an image of Soldiers and Sailors Monument and Terminal Tower rising up. And they’re all lit up against the night sky and other iconic kinds of buildings. So you get that in the background and then in the foreground, there’s a series of panels that also have buildings on them, so these pieces of iconography from Public Square are there, and it’s three-dimensional as it goes back."

“A Carol for Cleveland” is the first of Les Roberts’ 25 books to be adapted to a play. Roberts chose to step back and give Coble creative freedom. He then sat in during the first full read-through with the cast.

"I was so moved by that, that I started to cry at the end of the play,which is fine to do in a crowded theater because nobody sees you. But I’m sitting in this lighted room, I’m four feet from the actors, and I’m balling my eyes out. And then watching the official premier, that was so amazing for me, and uh, I cried again."

Roberts and Coble aren’t sure about the future of the play. They both hope it will become an annual tradition at the Cleveland Play House – perhaps like another Cleveland-centric tale of the season did. The stage version of  “A Christmas Story” played to sell-out crowds for five years. A Carol for Cleveland runs through December 23rd at PlayHouse Square’s Allen Theatre.

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