When it comes to the classic story of "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge has always been the star. That’s especially the case this year for The Rep’s annual production of Charles Dickens’s holiday staple, as a new Scrooge – Jonathan Smoots – takes on the classic character’s crotchety persona.
But just as important to the story are the Cratchits, who embody the Christmas spirit and the human spirit so essential to Dickens’s fable. For the past few years, the two characters have been played by the same two Milwaukee actors: Jonathan Wainwright and Marti Gobel. This year’s run – which opened last week – is no different. OnMilwaukee.com chatted with the two actors to find out what it’s like returning to the roles, bringing the Cratchits to life and the timeless power of "A Christmas Carol."
OnMilwaukee.com: You've been in "A Christmas Carol" for several productions now. What's it like returning to a show and a role like this every year? Do you bring something new to it or learn something new from it every time?
Jonathan Wainwright: I had never done something where I was returning as the same character and in a situation where so many others in the show – even if they were returning – were playing different roles. It’s very interesting to see the whole thing unfold in a familiar, yet organically different, way. And as it unfolds, to see where you fit and how the interactions change ever so slightly can be a challenge to our tendency to want to stay in a comfort zone. So even though it’s the same role, it is always different at the detail level. And as Cratchit, the primary concern is finding your way into Scrooge – or a new Scrooge as the case may be – and into his heart as it were.
Marti Gobel: It has been a great joy to play Mrs. Cratchit for the third year. My approach to the life of the Cratchits has been consistent – through the guidance of the director – but small adjustments are made based on the characters that have new actors portraying them. The children have changed. Scrooge has changed. This means that my interactions with them changed based on the energy they bring to the room.
OMC: What is it about A Christmas Carol that's been so enduring?
MG: The story is solid. The notion that a heart can change when goodness is shown and generosity is given is truly a universal lesson.
JW: The story is us; it is now, and it is always. When has there been a time on this planet that the ideas in this story were not absolutely present?
We all have moments of letting things go when we could have made an effort, to be part of a solution. Many of us counteract that by fighting through the apathy to help in small ways: a gesture of a dollar or two to the fifth or sixth person to ask for money in a day Downtown, giving away an extra coat or hat or gloves, donating food or time to a food pantry, anything. Small things, yes, but people in general have a great capacity to do little things and often do them or better. This story is about one of those people who never let himself become a part of any solution – great or small – and, as some of us often do, needs a bit of a nudge in the right direction.
OMC: What intrigues you in the characters of the Cratchits?
MG: The family bond. They are common people able to maintain their humanity despite poverty. The love is strong, and even in sadness, they are able to forgive and look forward.
JW: The love is what intrigues me and keeps me in love with the Cratchits. They are the perfect weapon against the wall around Scrooge’s heart, because he can see the direct result of his neglect in regards to how he treats Bob. The Cratchits are poor but not lacking in fight, energy, love and warmth – all the things gone from Scrooge's life. They don't accept their hardships, but they deal with them, push through them and retain every bit of the best of their humanity.
OMC: Have you acted in previous shows together? How were they different, and have they contributed to your performances here?
MG: Yes, "Broken and Entered" at Chamber Theatre. In that play, we were adversaries. It was strange to move from being enemies to husband and wife. We are actors, however, and playing emotional opposites as characters has given the two of us an opportunity to flex our wings as scene partners.
JW: Our characters (in "Broken and Entered") were very confrontational, so it was a lot of fun to explore that side of a relationship before sort of finding the love as the Cratchits. We kind of got that all out of the way first, and I think we have had a lot of fun growing this relationship the past few years.
We are very different actors. Marti has founded her own company and directed, so she comes at things a little different than I. Thank goodness for that, because I think it has given the Cratchits a lot of individual, specific life.
To top it off, Marti has had at least one of her real children in the Cratchit family each year I have done the show, and I just love her kids. They are very real, very comfortable on stage, and very cool people that bring a lot to the table – or the stage – as it were.
OMC: How well did you know each other before playing The Cratchits and did you do anything in rehearsal/prep to kind of create and develop the bond needed for the characters?
MG: We just chatted. We knew what we thought the scene should look like, and we allowed the relationship to grow each year. We are definitely more comfortable with each other, and this makes for a richer performance for the audience. The comfort level is obvious and needed for a couple such as the Cratchits. It can be generated, but it’s much stronger when it’s not.
JW: I did a lot of deferring to her about the family dynamic at first, as I don't have kids of my own, and she is the expert on that in my world for sure. It just seemed like we both wanted the same things, and it so happened that what we wanted was in line with what director Aaron Posner wanted, which is a real family. The Cratchits yell, fight, cry, laugh, goof around, rally around each other and pick each other up the way any family – or at least a family I’d want – would do.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.