How does a house become a set? When the play is "A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story" and the house is the James J. Hill House, built five decades after Charles Dickens' novel was published, it's not hard.
Three groups of 30 will make their way through the 1891 home at staggered times each evening for the 90-minute show. That means there will be three Scrooges, three Bob Cratchits, three stage managers, etc. There are rules — no red wine, no touching the woodwork, no flash photography — but Wayward Theatre's hope is that moving through a 42-room Victorian mansion will capture the atmosphere of Dickens' tale, which debuted in 1843.
"It steals the show, most of the time. This is our fourth show in that space, so we welcome having the house kind of be another character," said director Sarah Nargang. "There is an intimacy you achieve when you enter a room and silence falls before you begin to tell the story."
Still working back to prepandemic levels of 42,000 annual visitors, Hill House site manager Betsy Faber said that plays introduce newcomers to its splendors and make it feel like a home again, at least for the length of a performance.
There are a couple of introductory spaces but the ghostly action begins on the third floor, where miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who has forgotten the meaning of Christmas, awakens to encounter one of four phantoms who acquaint him with the holiday's spirit of generosity and joy.
Scrooge's bedroom (James Norman Hill's room)
James N. and Louis Hill were at Yale when their parents moved in, according to Faber, but they had bedrooms, anyway. And bathrooms.
"Guides like to point out that this is one of the few bathrooms that remains historically accurate," said Faber.
One feature of the bedroom screamed "grumpy hermit" to Nargang.
"Looking at that sloping ceiling, it felt like you could see Scrooge holed up in there," said the director, who promises a spooky surprise. "And it's not on the tour, which excited us."
Scrooge's childhood home (Louis Hill's bedroom)
Louis had a room similar to his brother's. The big difference? James had a river view but Louis faced Summit Avenue. He could have seen the Cathedral of St. Paul if it had been built (it opened in 1915).
Proximity to Scrooge's quarters was crucial for Wayward, since there's a scene in the hallway between the rooms, but fear factor is the reason "Carol" visits Louis' boudoir.
"That room gives me the creeps," said Nargang, which makes it perfect for the Ghost of Christmas Past to show the miser a vision of his youth. "Something about it just makes my hair stand on end."
Fezziwig's warehouse (art gallery)
A handful of the Hills' paintings are on display in a room that, because of its glass ceiling, looks like a greenhouse from the outside. To accommodate the art, it's one of the few rooms with air conditioning.
"We're going to do a 'How the Hills would have celebrated Christmas' in that space," Faber said.
The tree and decorations will form a backdrop for the young Scrooge's employer's holiday dance party, as will the three-story-tall pipe organ.
"It's so high! It's an incredible place to play in. We use it every time we do a show there. It's our favorite room," Nargang said.
Dining room (dining room)
The Hills didn't exactly cut corners but they spared no expense here. Just one square foot of its Venetian leather wallcovering nearly equaled a servant's monthly wage.
According to Faber, they wanted to impress visitors such as J.P. Morgan and William McKinley. They'd have eaten around a table that, with 17 leaves, accommodates 22.
Nargang thinks that makes the dining room perfect for the Ghost of Christmas Present and the specters of Ignorance and Want, who live under the ghost's cloak. They'll embody the irony of poverty existing alongside the gluttony that the Hill home represents.
Bob Cratchit's home (kitchen)
"You can tell immediately it's where the domestic help worked. There's no ornate, carved wood. It's very utilitarian. The pipes are exposed," said Faber, although the basement kitchen does have wood floors. "We believe Mary, James J. Hill's wife, requested it. She was a waitress when he met her and she recalled how much her feet hurt after serving on marble floors all day."
Because it's clear the kitchen is for humbler folks, Nargang said it feels like the kind of cozy space that Scrooge's optimistic employee would live in.
"There's warmth in the kitchen that translates so easily to the Cratchits because, above all, they are family-first. They're able to make a space feel special, no matter what their income is," Nargang said.
London alley (laundry room)
The Hills did not acquire a washing machine until 1912, so clothes were washed in the basement by a laundress and her assistant.
"The thing that's neat about the laundry room is actually the drying room. They had an indoor system, with these huge cedar racks that are on runners. You can pull them out, put the laundry on it and there were hot water pipes along the floor that heated up and dried the laundry," Faber said.
"We'll be in the main space but able to peek into the drying rack area," said Nargang, who'll transform the laundry into a crime-ridden alley. "We'll meet a streetwise lady who took the opposite path that Ebenezer did."
Streets of London (grand staircase)
"That's the only place in the house that has stained glass, on your way up the staircase. It's swans. One of the interesting stories is [Hill] got a bid from Tiffany's but he didn't like the design," Faber said.
Londoners will bustle up and down the staircase in the final scene, when Scrooge realizes that — spoiler alert — he has not missed Christmas.
"We'll literally be emerging from the dark basement, so I'm hoping it will feel like we are emerging into morning," said Nargang. "Part of that will be lighting. The overall feeling and intention of those scenes is they are joyous and exciting."
'A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story'
Who: Adapted from Charles Dickens' novel and directed by Sarah Nargang.
When: 7, 7:30 & 8 p.m. Wed.-Sun. Ends Jan. 1.
Where: 240 Summit Av., St. Paul.
Tickets: $50, waywardtheatre.org.