Once upon a time there was a little girl who couldn't leave "A Christmas Carol" behind. . . .
Thus might begin the tale of Michelle Wallen, an amateur actress with fine blue eyes and apple cheeks who for the past eight years has played several children's roles in the annual Christmas classic at the South Coast Repertory.
While Wallen may never be recorded in theatrical history with the likes of such Broadway waifs as Andrea ("Annie") McArdle, she has carved a special niche in SCR annals nonetheless.
"Audiences have virtually seen her grow up on the stage," director John-David Keller said the other day, recalling that he cast her in the first Mainstage production of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in 1980 when she was 11 years old. Today Wallen, 18, is a Chapman College freshman.
Keller remembered warmly that Wallen not only avoided giving the impression of "a Newport Beach surfette" during her audition--she grew up in Irvine--but also managed to convey an authentic feeling for the spirit of Dickens without any coaching.
"I needed someone like that," Keller said, "and Michelle seemed just right for the Dickens era--in looks and in attitude."
So right, it turns out, that Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley's Ghost, the Cratchits and the Fezziwigs and the rest have become, by her own account, as indelibly real to her as people she has known all her life.
Every year at this time, moreover, vivid scenes of yuletide London from a century and a half ago flood her memory as though drawn from her own childhood experiences. Which, in fact, they are.
"My memories of Christmas come from 'Christmas Carol,' " Wallen said earlier this week. "It wouldn't be the holiday season for me without it. The cast is family. The characters are like old friends."
Indeed, when Wallen turned 16, Keller threw a Sweet 16 party for her that might have been a backstage production. Martha McFarland, who plays Mrs. Feeziwig, was co-host with John Ellington, who plays Bob Cratchit. Hal Landon Jr., who stars as Scrooge, showed up with his family and so did Richard Doyle, a.k.a. the Spirit of Christmas Past.
A Dickens trouper of almost dizzying faith, Wallen ultimately decided her college career would have to accommodate her annual theater engagement, rather than the other way around.
After her graduation from Corona del Mar High School, Wallen said, she chose to attend college in Orange County largely because that would enable her to remain in the SCR Mainstage production.
"I knew if I went out of state I couldn't be in the Christmas show," she said.
Yet for all her devotion to the stage, this college woman has no intention of making a career of acting.
Wallen said she tried it for a while at the age of 12. She got an agent with the help of the SCR staff and made a few television commercials, including one for Parkay margarine that had a two-year run.
She also appeared in "The Imaginary Invalid" by Moliere, another Mainstage production.
Her "Christmas Carol" roles have become more substantial, even romantic, over the years.
Where she used to play Bob Cratchit's plain daughter Martha, she now plays Scrooge's sister Fan. And she also doubles as the Pursued Maiden at the Fezziwigs' party.
"I get kissed, which is pretty cool," she noted. "It's a stage kiss, of course. But our lips touch."
Apparently not enough to turn a maiden's head. She intends to take up a teaching career.