It's easy to be cynical about A Christmas Carol. Hedonistic Victorian-era ghost stories? Sure. But blah blah Scrooge, blah blah Tiny Tim, blah blah plaid-clad children frolicking in the halls of the theater. Please. As if the theater needed any more children.

I'm growing increasingly scornful just thinking about Scrooge's hush-money goose and that differently abled toddler's redundant injunction for God to bless us, "everyone." I'm only refusing to say "Bah, humbug" because nearly every reviewer who saw ACT Theatre's debut production in 1976 beat me to it.

"This is no humbug," wrote Wayne Johnson of the Seattle Times, before going on to praise the play's Seattle premiere. For him, Shelley Henze Schermer's scenic effects were "gangbusters," veteran actor John Gilbert's Scrooge revealed "the humanity of the man," and, overall, ACT's Carol made Christmas "not only tolerable but believable and meaningful."

Valerie Winslow over at Bellevue's Daily Journal-American (1976–1979) assured her readers that the "contemporary" theater didn't send out Scrooge "in six inch platforms" to do a striptease with Mrs. Fezziwig, but instead gave the story "the reverence it is due."

And they were right. ACT's Carol, now a 41-year-old annual mainstay, adapted by the theater's first artistic director, Gregory A. Falls, is mostly Dickens. A majority of the on-stage language comes straight from the book, as does Schermer's set design. The closer you are to Dickens, the closer you are to the radical ideas that still animate this not-quite-so-old, not-quite-so-irrelevant, not-quite-so-unmagical tale. And the more you know about the history of ACT's production of the show, the more inclined you are to open your heart to Johnson's idea that its Carol is not only tolerable, but believable and meaningful—up to a point.

Last week, I sat down with director (and former ACT artistic director) Kurt Beattie, who has both played and directed Scrooge four times. We were joined by Schermer, the first and current set designer, and also Steve Coulter, ACT's longtime technical director, who has seen this play through 19 of its iterations.

Like many Seattle traditions, Carol was willed into being. A 1976 postcard mailer featuring a sketch of Scrooge declared: "It's the beginning of a major Christmas tradition in Seattle—and it begins with you." Three years later, the cover of the show's 1979 playbill announced: "A Christmas Carol—Now a Tradition." Other seasonal chestnuts began to compete for the city's attention around that time, too. The Seahawks hit the Kingdome's freshly painted gridiron in 1976. And the year before, Pacific Northwest Dance Ballet Company acquired Lew Christensen's Nutcracker.

Before Carol, ACT wintered on a mélange of cheeky vaudevillian acts starring the children's touring cast. The shows resembled the British panto tradition.

"We all started complaining: 'Gee, wouldn't it be nice to have a real story?'" Schermer said. "So Greg decided to try to do A Christmas Carol, because, well, it's Christmas in a nutshell."

Falls's adaptation debuted to critical acclaim, and ticket sales helped to bankroll a year-long production schedule. But did the Carol save the theater?

"No, Godspell saved the theater," Schermer said. "But A Christmas Carol kept it going."

Beattie added that Carol isn't "a cash cow" in terms of the theater's budget. It generally makes more money than it costs to produce, and it reaches an audience that ACT likes to see in the theater, which is to say children and adults who don't often attend the regular season, if ever.

Some of those first-timers become converts. Marketing and PR assistant Cati Thelen said one of ACT's employees looked themselves up on the Tessitura system and realized that Carol was the first play they saw at the theater.

Coulter mentioned that every year a dental surgeon named Dr. Neal buys an entire performance for the dentists who refer their patients to him, a gifting practice Dr. Neal inherited from his father, also a dentist. This has been going on for decades. "We have 420 people in a room connected by dentistry," Coulter said. "Which is kind of an amazing moment for them and for us." I see teeth. Just teeth.

Though the staging and some of the effects changed with ACT's move from its proscenium in Lower Queen Anne to its in-the-round downtown, those who've come since run number one might be familiar with a few props that are still in use. Scrooge's money box has been used every year, as has Bob Cratchit's desk, which Schermer found in her basement.

"So many Bob Cratchits have put their hands on that desk," Coulter said. "The wood's been worn away, and the paint, but we don't spend that much time with it, except to make sure the joints are glued tight."

Carol remains relevant, Beattie said, partly because of the play's political resonances: "The origin of the story is about social justice," he said. "Even though it's been incredibly commodified—Mr. Magoo, Donald Duck, the Muppets—that element of it is one of the things that sustains it."

Charles Dickens published Carol in 1843, a time of tremendous social ferment in England. The working poor had been rioting for decades. The memory of the French Revolution was still fresh, and the burgeoning middle class was afraid of violence. "Scrooge is England," Beattie said. "And if England doesn't become aware of the victims of its social structure, ignorance, and want, those two children who come out of the ghost of Christmas Present's robes will lead to civil war."

Dickens's story, then, serves as a warning. But it also offers the rich a way out: "It talks deeply about this necessity for a society in which there is no negligible person, one where we have an unconditional responsibility for each other," Beattie said. At that time, the morality tale ennobled the practices of charitable giving and selflessness around Christmastime, which gave us the moral formula for the holiday we celebrate now.

But when I saw the play recently, I struggled with this issue of relevance. One of the liberal criticisms of Carol was rattling around in my head: This play isn't politically radical; it's a poor person's fantasy that self-reflection and storytelling can warm the cold hearts of capitalists. Beauty and the Beast is a similar story. Fifty Shades of Gray is another. These narratives keep us on the hamster wheel. Rich daddies aren't going to save the children they've impoverished—we have to grab that goose for ourselves.

But the fact that the play continues to run year after year blunts this criticism in a meta-theatrical fashion. The actors who start their careers as Cratchit children grow into Bobs and Belles, suggesting that Scrooge never really does have that complete change of heart at the end of the play. (Add Groundhog Day to the list.)

I kept trying to put a Donald Trump wig on Scrooge, but he never wore it well. Scrooge doesn't dissemble. He's cruel, but consistent. And above all, principled. Our PEOTUS speaks in big, bright lies. He seduces, charms, and tweets. You always know where you are with Scrooge.

So despite the wonderful performances, despite the magical snowfall tech crews sweep up each night, and despite the sense of capital-T Tradition I could feel suspended in the room, I squirmed in my chair throughout the show. Until the last iconic moment, that is, when Scrooge lifts up Tiny Tim and sets him on his shoulders. It's a living symbol that harks back to Christmas's druidic roots, the old year giving way to the new. My stomach soured at the sight—in a good way.

Of all the play's critics, Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Maggie Hawthorn came nearest the mark back in 1976: "The laughter is warm, the tears are just under the surface, the spirit of the holiday at its most ideal is evoked, with an underlying regret that its precepts are rarely kept in today's world (if, indeed, they ever were)." recommended