Beware the ghost with a bargain: The price for the ethereal gifts he offers may be too high. The hero of Charles Dickens's The Haunted Man, now in a splendid new production by CityStage Ensemble, discovers just how high a price when he's offered release from the sorrows of his life by an insidious phantom.

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens's ghosts showed a nasty old man just what his presence in the world meant to his fellow creatures and how he had better change before he died a despised old man. The Haunted Man is as warm, scary and engrossing a tale as the Christmas classic, but it is also more profound, darker, and truer to the average person's lot in life. Dickens was a consummate psychologist--he understood so well what his fellow humans desired and how little they understood about themselves. So he once again sent a spirit to plague a man "sick with experience" and tormented by regret and resentment.

Professor Redlaw sits miserably brooding in his study at the university, solipsistic, distracted by his memories and shut up in himself like an egg. In his youth Redlaw had a friend who treacherously enticed his fiancee away from him and married her himself. The memories of his fair Amelia torture the professor so much that all he wants is to be released from them. So, sure enough, the phantom of his dead rival appears on New Year's Eve to grant the professor his wish.

The ghost's offer, however, is usurious--the professor must watch how his new ability to wipe out painful memories affects others. As Redlaw gleefully applies his new gift to the lives of people around him, he also erases their consciences, sucking the milk of human kindness out of them on the spot. Conscience is reliant on memory, and those who forget their reasons for suffering are driven deeper into another kind of affliction, becoming mean-spirited and even cruel.

Dickens's incredible psychological complexity is carefully and brilliantly captured by playwright Charles Henrich, who adapted the tale from the original story. He has created a riveting evening in the theater--intense, layered and as rich in meaning as it is in character. A few passages are a trifle hard to follow, but their obscurities ultimately serve to enhance the story's supernatural elements. Greg Ward's sharp directing, which leaps delicately from dark, dreamlike tones to playful mockery of human sentiment, makes us feel Dickens's presence fully. Henrich has his narrators form a chorus, poetically evoking the play's stern warning and leading the hero to a redemption that is masterfully real despite the conventions of Gothic storytelling.

Dickens understood how completely human beings could deceive themselves, and though he regularly dealt out sentimentality as the ace up his sleeve, he also mocked self-pity and self-concern. Henrich, too, lampoons sentimentality without denying the legitimacy of kinder, gentler thoughts. And he and Ward are perfectly graced by an excellent cast.

Dan Hiester's cynical phantom is the essence of pernicious nastiness, though a surprising wisdom underlies his murky sarcasm. Joseph McDonald makes us feel all the professor's intelligence, sorrow and self-deception--and finally his awakening--with spellbinding truth. Gail Farnsworth-Smith gives the idealized housekeeper Milly a brittle edge here and there so that the goodness she expresses is truly human. And, good as he was as Damis in CityStage's recent Tartuffe, Chris Tabb distinguishes himself again here as Edmund, the man Milly loves.

The entire cast succeeds in creating an otherworldly atmosphere, and the result is a substantial, luscious Dickensian feast--all fit meat for a New Year in the theater.

The Haunted Man, through February 5 at Jack's Theatre, 1553 Platte Street, 433-8082.


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