At a unique, invitation-only production of “A Christmas Carol” in Lincoln on Thursday, the miracle of Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion will compete with the miracle of Alexis Verzal’s remarkable recovery from a brain injury.
Alexis, 6, saw “A Christmas Carol” a year ago for the first time at the Omaha Community Playhouse. Her parents, Brandon and Tiffany, decided to take her because Brandon had loved the show so much when he was growing up in Omaha.
“We went almost every year as a family,” he said last week in Lincoln, where he and Tiffany run their own video production company, V2 Content. “I loved it from the time I was really little. I wanted to take her as soon as she was old enough.
But with her brain injury, which doctors and investigators said was shaken-baby syndrome, sitting still for 2½ hours was a lot to ask of Alexis.
The Verzals got seats in the back row, thinking that if it didn’t work out, they could quietly slip away.
“But I’ve never seen anything like it,” Brandon Verzal said. “She was enamored. There had never been a time she sat quietly for 2½ hours. She thought it was the greatest thing in the world. And then she got to meet all the actors afterward in the lobby. She was singing all the way home.”
She couldn’t stop talking about the show. In fact, she asked her parents if she could put on her own “A Christmas Carol.”
She and her dad made the set. His video company’s lighting equipment became part of the production. Costumes were found or made. Alexis wrote the script, including all her favorite bits in the 20-minute Verzal adaptation of Dickens.
Alexis played Marley, her favorite character. She cast family members, including both sets of grandparents, in all the parts. Her mom was the Ghost of Christmas Past. Dad was Scrooge. After a standing ovation, they performed it all over again. This time Alexis played Scrooge.
“It blew me away,” Verzal said. “I never thought she was going to make it through the play, let alone love it so much. Now she talks about it all the time.”
Alexis has come a long way since April 3, 2008, when she was left in the care of a Texas babysitter. At the time, Brandon and Tiffany ran Texas A&M’s equivalent of HuskerVision. The two, broadcast majors who met at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, were hired by athletic director Bill Byrne, formerly of Nebraska, to run A&M’s video unit.
Overnight, their world was turned upside down by the phone call about Alexis.
At 14 months, Alexis suddenly was blind, unable to talk or move arms and legs.
“No hospitals in Texas would take her,” Brandon recalled. “They said she was just too young, too hurt.”
But folks at the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln said they could work with Alexis.
Brandon and Tiffany quit their jobs and moved to Lincoln, where they had nearby family support. Tiffany grew up in Cozad, Neb. The young parents lived at the hospital for the first two months.
Back in Texas, a monthlong trial, which Brandon said was almost worse than being in the intensive care unit, resulted in the babysitter’s acquittal. The Verzals, however, said doctors and investigators expressed little doubt about the cause of Alexis’ injuries.
On their way home from the trial, the Verzals got a call from Madonna Hospital. Larry the Cable Guy (Nebraska native Dan Whitney, who lives near Lincoln) had seen a Verzal video about Alexis. He decided to donate $1.2 million to Madonna for a new hospital wing, which has since been named the Alexis Verzal Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital at Madonna.
“We went from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs in one day,” Verzal said.
Alexis’ recovery was slower, but an even greater cause for jubilation.
Gradually, she has recovered 90 percent of her sight. She started to talk around the time of her third birthday. She’s walking again, just in the last year. Her speech is normal for her age. She’s in first grade.
“She’s probably a couple months behind her peers in learning at school, but she’s getting there with reading and math,” Verzal said. “It’s been remarkable. She’s tough. When she first got hurt, they said we’d be lucky if she wasn’t in a nursing home the rest of her life.”
The Verzals took Alexis back to the Playhouse for “A Christmas Carol” this year. This time they sat in the fifth row, where Alexis soaked up even more detail.
And this time, the Verzal adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” will be in a small Lincoln theater, for a select audience of just about everybody who knows Alexis. The cast will include her therapist at Madonna; her school principal, assistant principal and secretary; her parents and grandparents; and Aunt Jen as the Christmas goose.
Alexis, who turns 7 in February, has been to half a dozen other plays in Omaha and Lincoln over the past year. It’s something she loves to do. And never stops talking about. Verzal said he thinks writing a script, hunting for props and costumes, and casting her play have helped Alexis get better. There’s no doubt her brain function has improved.
“We worked so many years to get her to talk,” Verzal said. “She’s never stopped talking about ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and probably will be talking about it for the rest of her life.”
Call it a Christmas miracle, Dickens style.