A Conversation with Noble Shropshire and Johanna Morrison
By Theresa M. MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate
Noble Shropshire and Johanna Morrison are no strangers to Hartford Stage – or to each other. The two actors, who have become close friends, have worked together through the years on several plays including the hilarious backstage farce Noises Off, the beloved holiday classic A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas, and now Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, a madcap musical extravaganza, directed by Darko Tresnjak.
Year after year during the holiday season, Shropshire and Morrison portray two of the most recognizable characters in Victorian literature: Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol respectively. In this version of the Dickens classic, adapted by former Hartford Stage Artistic Director Michael Wilson, Shropshire also portrays Scrooge’s beleaguered housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, while Morrison plays debt-laden doll vendor Bettye Pidgeon and wizened Old Josie. Both actors have become household names with local audiences.
“I was the first Marley in this version of A Christmas Carol,” Shropshire recalls. “Since returning to it, I have realized the role has always been a touchstone for me. It’s a great universal passion that we all gather once a year to reenact. It gives me hope.”
Morrison adds, “I feel most special, most privileged, very lucky, and very grateful to Mr. Dickens, to Mr. Wilson, and to the entire staff and crew at Hartford Stage – and to our glorious audiences, year after year.”
Shropshire and Morrison performed together in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, with Shropshire playing hard-drinking Englishman Selsdon Mowbray and Morrison as forgetful American actress Dotty Otley. The two actors have formed a deep mutual admiration.
“For many years I have enjoyed and admired Noble’s work,” Morrison says. “We have a really lovely, comfortable, mutually trusting and admiring professional relationship! It is just plain, downright fun to work with him – but I do think that trust and respect are the major aspects of our successes and pleasures.”
Shropshire echoes Morrison’s sentiments. “Jo is my dear friend, a wonderful actress, and we always have such wickedly good fun on stage. This is perhaps because we share an aesthetic: we both have a high regard for really low comedy. Most performances of the Old Josie scene [in A Christmas Carol] in which she is pitch-perfect, I’m sure she has no idea that my knickers have usually come down round my ankles!”
As the two spirits fly from Victorian England to the warm, sandy beaches of Greece in The Comedy of Errors, they look forward to working with Tresnjak, the design team, cast, crew, and production team in envisioning this production. “I predict it will make your socks fall down, if not your pants,” jokes Shropshire.
Shropshire and Morrison are both experienced Shakespearean actors and hold the language in high regard. They are both hard-pressed to name their favorite Shakespeare plays. “There is no bottom to Shakespeare; he is the eternal spring,” Shropshire notes, citing King Lear, Hamlet, and As You Like It as possible contenders. Morrison fondly recalls playing Gertrude in Hamlet and Titania opposite Terrence Mann’s Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Morrison especially enjoys “exploring the beautiful language and then revealing the specific, often complicated, meaning of it. It’s so rewarding… to be able to speak those wonderful words and thoughts.”
In The Comedy of Errors, Morrison plays Aemilia the Abbess who must sort out everyone’s problems, including her own, and untangle all the confusions and mistaken identities. “She is the absolute Deus Ex Machina,” Morrison exclaims, “What fun!” Shropshire portrays the Syracusan merchant Aegeon. “He’s like Job, but with a happy ending. Think Mel Brooks as Noah!”
Although she has appeared in Hartford Stage productions (including Ether Dome and Summer and Smoke), this is the first time that Morrison will be directed by Tresnjak; she cannot wait to work under his guidance after having seen, enjoyed, and admired his productions the last four years. Shropshire has worked with Tresnjak on Macbeth in 2013 (he also appeared in the 2000 production directed by Michael Wilson) and The Tempest.
“Working with Darko, you know he’s likely been obsessing about the work, perhaps for months,” Shropshire says. “But, in rehearsals, he’s up on his feet, agile and quick, his wonderful ideas surprising even him, as we move through the text. I love that.”