When Marley's Ghost returns from the beyond to lecture his old business partner, Scrooge, it's downright spooky.
During that scene in “A Christmas Carol” at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where the green-skinned ghost appears and calls out loudly, children in the audience have been known to whimper.
“It's scary for me, too,” said Don Keelan-White, 64, playing the role this year for the first time.
Not that it gives him goose bumps or visions of things that go bump in the night. It's just that it's an important role in the Playhouse classic, now in its 37th year.
“Everybody talks about that scene,” Don said backstage. “There's a level of expectation, and I want to live up to it.”
For Keelan-White, this holiday season is a lot different from last year's — when he was teaching English in Beijing.
A retired teacher in York, Neb., he volunteered for the China stint through a program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He taught conversational English to Chinese students from August 2011 until January 2012.
One obvious difference between the U.S. and China, he said, is that parking lots outside our schools are filled with cars, while in China the common mode of transportation is bicycles.
Chinese students, Don said, are very interested in U.S. culture.
“They like American music,” he said, “and they are eager to find out about America.”
Don got to experience Chinese culture, too, and visited the Forbidden City, the largest ancient palatial structure in the world, as well as the Great Wall. During his travels in China, he estimates, he made 10,000 images.
Only about 1 percent of Chinese people are Christians, so most don't know much about the religious Christmas — let alone Scrooge and Marley. But yuletide decorations and lights are seen widely in stores.
“I saw a lot of Santa and Rudolph,” Don said, “but no baby Jesus and manger.”
The son of a Church of Christ minister, Don moved to Nebraska with his family in the eighth grade and graduated from York High School. He was an English major in college at a Quaker school in Ohio (Malone University).
Long interested in the stage, he served a theater apprenticeship in Dallas before returning to York.
For more than three decades, until retiring in 2009, he taught English, speech and drama, and helped produce musicals at York High.
He also was active in community theater, acting, directing and serving on a board. A few years ago he performed two seasons as the old skinflint Scrooge himself.
His wife, Peg, a special education teacher, died three years ago. Their sons, Ben, 27, and Evan, 23, live together in Omaha.
Don auditioned in September for “A Christmas Carol,” which runs through Dec. 23.
Carl Beck, the Playhouse artistic director and co-director of “Christmas Carol,” said Don showed his experience and received a callback to read for Marley. He got the role.
Beck said Marley's visit is a key to the story of Scrooge's evolving conversion from the grump who stole Christmas to a loving employer.
The ghost's dramatic, vertical exit to the nether world — lowered hydraulically through a trapdoor, with lots of special effects — is either thrilling or chilling, or both. Parents occasionally have to take frightened children out of the theater.
Don said he doesn't like scaring children but accepts the importance of the scene. Even in the meet-and-greet line in the lobby after the show, he said, “Some kids cling to their parents' legs and get by me as quickly as they can.”
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