By Russ Bickerstaff   Published Dec 01, 2005 at 5:08 AM

Once again, cold weather and snow return to southwestern Wisconsin, bringing with them the 30th season of The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre's, "A Christmas Carol." It's the same gift the Rep has been giving Milwaukee every year for the past three decades and it never seems to go out of style. The largest production of its kind in the state, The Rep's "Carol," will once again be attended by thousands coming to see Ebenezer Scrooge be visited by a host of paranormal entities coming to teach him the importance of the holiday season.

This year's production varies little from the past two. Some actors have exchanged roles and some have dropped-out. Some of the staging has been changed, but most of what is seen onstage is a slight improvement over previous years. This year as every year in the past, the production evolves ever so slightly for a marginally fresher perspective on Dickens' classic holiday tale..

Returning from a thoroughly enjoyable performance in the role last year, Lee Ernst returns to play the stingy, old British moneylender, Ebenezer Scrooge who mends his selfish ways after being visited by a series of Christmas specters. Ernst is as enjoyable as ever, playing the full range of Scrooge's character arc, from his dark beginnings to his joyously generous personality at the story's end,

Mark Corkins returns to his role as Scrooge's old business associate, Jacob Marley. Once again, Corkins cuts a powerful figure in the role of one of the most influential figures in Scrooge's life. He's also quite good in the role of the old peddler in Christmas Yet To Come.

Continuing in the tradition of last year's Fabio Pires, this year's Michael Perez plays a rather menacing Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. He towers over Ernst in the grizzly, ragged future with an ominous, silent presence.

Elevated from a considerably lower profile last year as Mr. Grimgrind / Mr. Philpot, Rep resident actor Torrey Hanson returns to the production as Scrooge's employee Bob Cratchitt. Fresh from a string of high-profile roles with The Rep, Hanson delivers the role with a powerfully sympathetic presence that it has missed in the past two years.

Sixteen year-old Eva Balistreri, in her eighth year with the production, adds a noticeable profile to the show as she is elevated to the role of Martha Cratchit, eldest child of Bob and Mrs. visiting the family for the holidays. Balistreri, who recently starred in First Stage's _True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle_, has a poise and presence that transcends the limited role.

This year, Jenny Wanasek takes over the role of Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge's oppressed maid. While Wanasek has quite a presence and delivers the relatively minor role remarkably well, one can't help but feel the absence of Laura Gordon in the role. Gordon, a remarkably accomplished actress, made the role shine Last year with a considerable amount of depth for such a marginal character.

Laura Gordon's husband, Jonathan Smoots returns to the Rep's Christmas Carol this year most prominently in the role of Christmas Past. In period costume from an idealized past, Smoots cuts a rather dashing Washington-eqsue figure in the role wearing a powdered wig. His voice echoes voice from beyond the corporeal world.

As The Rep returns to the story every year, various elements of the production rise into prominence and recede. This year, the staging may not be as dynamic as it seemed last year, but the story last. Certain things may have been changed from previous years, or maybe some elements just aren't as impressive to individual audience members as they used to be, but the story will always be there. All deviations from expectation aside, the thirtieth Milwaukee Rep production of Dickens' classic holiday tale is good enough to feel good about receiving the same old gift for years to come.

The Milwaukee Rep's "A Christmas Carol" plays now through Dec. 24 at the Pabst Theater. Tickets range in price from $12.50-$65 and can be purchased in advance by calling the box office at (414) 224-9490.