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Chase connects with inner Scrooge for Rock County stage swan song

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Greg Little
Tuesday, November 21, 2017

JANESVILLE—Michael Chase has some Scrooge in him. He's pretty sure you do, too.

“I guess, perhaps, there's a little bit in all of us,” he said, referring to Charles Dickens' iconic Ebenezer Scrooge of “A Christmas Carol” fame. “There are times when I'm out in public and I look at someone and think, 'What a despicable person' ... but I don't say anything.

We all have those devilish thoughts. Hopefully, we just don't act on them.”

Being in tune with his inner curmudgeon is a fortunate circumstance for Chase, at least at this time of year. Beginning Nov. 30, the 65-year-old starts his third go-round as the miserly money-lender in Stage One's production of the holiday classic. Shows are planned across two weekends at the Janesville Performing Arts Center.

“My friends say, 'You're perfectly typecast for (this role),'” Chase said. “I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not.”

Humor aside, Chase is well-suited for the demanding role ... at least from a theatrical standpoint.

A native of Michigan, he studied acting at the famed Drama Studio London, which boasts such notable alumni as Forest Whitaker and Roma Downey. After graduating with the equivalent of a master's degree, he moved to Chicago and embarked on a career as a professional actor.

To fulfill a longtime dream, Chase moved to Milton and opened a bed and breakfast. He later opened another in Clinton and, between the two, remained in business for 12 years.

But he never strayed far from the stage. Audiences have become familiar with Chase through a handful of local productions, including two previous turns as Scrooge.

Chase said he keeps a special place in his heart for the grumpy Brit, whose range of emotions throughout the play can challenge even the most seasoned actors.

“I have to search to find the part of me that is Scrooge, but it's such a great, great role,” he said. “He goes through this redemption, metamorphosis and transformation unlike anyone else in classic literature. It's truly the role of a lifetime.”

Chase believes part of what makes Scrooge unique is the fact that, though he's crabby and crotchety, he has an underlying humanity that makes it hard not to pity him—even at his worst.

“He is mean, and he's misunderstood. He thinks he's right,” Chase said. “The self-righteous are like that ... they can't understand why others don't see life as they do. But the fact he is visited by ghosts who hold up a mirror to show him what a mean man he is gives him a chance to change, and he goes for it.”

That's where the personal dilemma comes for the rest of us. Given the opportunity to change, do we answer the call or do we plod along in perpetual Scrooge mode?

“What, ideally, would you like to be remembered for?” Chase asked. “Do you want to make a difference? Can you make a difference in other people's lives if given the chance? I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual, and I think that's what helps me find the spirit in this man.”

Appreciating humanity is often easiest during the holidays. While its title and timeline make “A Christmas Carol” a seasonal piece, Chase notes the play's morals resonate across the seasons and years.

“Even though (the play) happens at Christmas, it's not a Christian thing,” he said. “It's still a very secular story, and it's something those of any faith can appreciate. Scrooge is a reminder that there is a real depth to appreciating our lives that is not confined to Christmas. This could happen at almost any time. It comes down to having love in your heart all year-round.”

Of course, no story about Scrooge can end without at least one humbug.

This year's holiday production likely will be Chase's swan song on the local stage, as he plans to put his house up for sale. It's likely he won't even be here when Christmas comes next year.

At least we'll always have London.

“Scrooge has become somewhat of a signature role for me,” Chase said. “Who knows, I may do it again sometime, somewhere. I still have a few good years left.”

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JANESVILLE—It's a tale that's nearly 200 years old and, by now, everyone knows the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

Since its release in 1843, Charles Dickens' “A Christmas Carol” has been presented thousands of times by countless theater companies. Some groups have sided with tradition and stayed true to Dickens' original masterpiece while others have taken liberties to try something different.

Pat Thom, who is directing Stage One's upcoming production of the show, is doing a bit of both.

“This is my own adaptation. We're not using anyone else's script,” she said. “I did this 25 years ago when I directed the play at a local church, and I tried really hard to stick as close as possible to the story using Dickens' original dialogue and descriptions.”

Still, there are alterations.

“A couple of things that are unique about the adaptation is that is uses a narrator, but the narrator is on stage the whole time,” she said. “There are a couple of surprises without changing anything Dickens wrote, but I've added a surprise twist at the end.”

The production also is special for Thom because she finally gets a chance to work with local equity actor Michael Chase, who plays Scrooge.

“Working with Michael is a real privilege,” she said. “He is a consummate professional who approaches theater in a very professional manner, and that has rubbed off on the other characters. We've known each other through theater for many years, but we've never worked on a show together.”

The importance of family is a strong theme within “A Christmas Carol,” and the local production's cast list reflects that, Thom said.

“We have several different family units involved ... siblings, parents, grandparents and grandchildren all working together,” she said. “That has really added to making the characters more fun. And it's a real mix in that we have some very experienced people, others with community theater experience and some who have never been in a show before.”

For Thom personally, the play's central theme of appreciating life and not letting it slip by sadly came to the forefront when her mother, Doris, died Nov. 15 at age 97.

“One day I had to leave rehearsal early because she was in the emergency room, and she died the next morning,” Thom said. “I talked to the cast and explained what happened, and they were all sympathetic and nice. But I told them this was so appropriate for the play because it's all about living your life and how life doesn't last forever. You have to do what you want to do and treat people well while you're still around.”

—Greg Little



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