It’s common for Milwaukee Rep actors to shuffle through various roles in the company’s annual production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but Jonathan Smoots has taken it to a new level.
Smoots has been the gravedigger, a chorus director and a philanthropic solicitor. He’s portrayed Mr. Fezziwig, Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past and present.
About the only roles he’s missed, he says, are Bob Cratchit, nephew Fred and Old Joe, the pawnbroker of Christmas Future. And Scrooge.
But that’s about to change. After participating in 15 productions of A Christmas Carol and understudying the role for a decade, Smoots will finally don the humbug’s nightshirt this year.
Smoots has technically played “a” Scrooge before, taking on the role of Young Scrooge in 1981, in both his first Rep Christmas Carol and his first Rep show. At the time, the role was a one-off, with Smoots playing roles in a handful of other productions that season. Then he made only occasional appearances with the company until 1998, when yet another Christmas Carol brought him back to the Rep. He’s been in Carol almost every season since, drawing closer and closer to the role he’s desired for years.
“I love the story so much,” Smoots says. “I love the character. There are not many characters where you can bring all your dramatic abilities to playing the role honestly, and then in the last fifth of the play you get to use all your comedy skills.”
He hoped to get the role during the 2012 season, when Aaron Posner was announced as the new director for the production. He even reached out to Posner directly to pitch himself as Scrooge. But being new to the Rep, Posner instead decided to work with someone he already knew: Christopher Donahue, who played Scrooge that year and in 2013.
But Smoots got another opportunity this year when Donahue said he wasn’t returning for a third year as Scrooge. “He told me, ‘I’m not one of those actors who can repeat a role year after year after year. It’s just not in me,’” Smoots says. He acted fast, reaching out to Posner and artistic director Mark Clements about the role the same day, even before Donahue had a chance to inform them himself. The Rep didn’t make the decision on the spot, but by this spring, Smoots knew he’d be the next actor to play Scrooge on the Pabst stage.
Then Smoots had to figure out what sort of Scrooge he is.
Every year, the Christmas Carol understudies perform an understudy run, and in 2013 Smoots says he found himself unusually unsettled, playing the character differently in every scene. “Over the years, it fell out of focus for me, because it seemed unlikely that I was ever going to go on,” he says. “I lost the drive and the urge to zero in on something specific and consistent, a real character.”
So this year Smoots hit the reset button. He went back to read the original Dickens novella — much of which is preserved in the language of the Rep’s adaptation, co-written by former artistic director Joseph Hanreddy and Edward Morgan — and worked on keeping his interpretation of Scrooge simple and honest.
Doing so has led him to new interpretations of Scrooge’s journey, especially in the play’s second half, when he reflects on the present world and the potential future that lies ahead. Smoots says his Scrooge realizes he lived his life poorly as early as the end of Act I, making the second act all about learning that he still has the ability to change his ways — and the lives of those around him.
He’s worked with Posner on changes to the script that better support that thesis. For instance, it’s always bugged him that the play’s final scenes seem to give the impression that it’s simply seeing himself dead in the future that inspires Scrooge’s change in behavior.
Smoots explains: “We’re all going to die. That shouldn’t be a surprise. … It’s not his death that shocks him to say, ‘I can make a change; I will make a change.’ It’s Tiny Tim. It’s Bob Cratchit. It’s giving that little boy who came to his office a coin. It’s the full realization that life can be so much more, and so much fuller.”
The simplest example says it all. In prior productions, Smoots says, Scrooge wakes up after the spirits’ visitations shouting, “The time before me is my own! I’m alive! Alive!”
But back in the original Dickens, and now in the Rep’s production, the sentiment is more complex, and more moving: “The time before me is my own — to make amends.”
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of A Christmas Carol runs Dec. 2–24, at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. Tickets range from $25 to $85 (subject to change) and can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.