- The 1940s come to vivid life, right down to the taste of Lifebuoy.
You'd think it'd take a triple-dog-dare for someone to mount a theatrical version of a movie that's virtually faultless. The classic flick A Christmas Story, featuring the often tongue-in-cheek narration of author Jean Shepherd along with pitch-perfect performances in every role, is so beautifully rendered that a stage redo could only pale in comparison.
And let's face it: Comparisons are unavoidable, since the movie -- repeated in marathon fashion every Christmas on cable TV -- has been encoded in our DNA. So the Play House has earned a tip of the plaid earflapped-hat for making its take on A Christmas Story as charming and entertaining as it is. While some individual scenes go a bit flat, and the overall pacing occasionally feels like walking through slush in loose-fitting galoshes, there are plenty of moments where Shepherd's magical words soar once again.
And those words, written by a man who spun stories on radio and in print for many years, rarely receive the credit and attention they deserve. In the play, Ralph Parker is recalling his boyhood as part of a splendidly dysfunctional family in northern Indiana, where Shepherd grew up, and he recounts details with such precision that hearing them, anyone can be transported back to the 1940s.
What he does want, of course, is a BB gun, even though everyone from his mother to his teacher scoffs at the idea with the ultimate put-down: "You'll shoot your eye out." One of the brilliant constructions of this story is that Shepherd pairs that boyish dream of armaments with his old man's lustful enjoyment of the contest prize he receives in the mail: a leg lamp in fishnet stocking, black stiletto heel, and hootchy-kootch tasseled shade. Thus, side-by-side, father and son are pursuing the forbidden, as Ralphie's mother tries to keep them on an even keel with warm meals (meatloaf and red cabbage) and rueful compassion.
The direction of Seth Gordon is sensitive to the family dynamics of these loving, pre-Simpsons misfits, and that is where the play develops its definitive strength. Even with Shepherd's gentle sarcasm glossing over the situations and descriptions, we know how much everyone in the Parker family cares for each other -- extending to Mom and Dad's laissez-faire approach to Ralphie's younger brother, Randy, who often takes up residence under the sink. Shepherd's subtle lesson: Parents must accommodate some harmless quirks in order to allow children's individuality to unfold.
In a strong cast, Christopher McHale is affable and solid as the narrator, Ralph. Although he doesn't possess the remarkable vocal dexterity of Shepherd, whose voice had embedded within it a wry and knowing chuckle, McHale meanders comfortably through the scenes as he gives us a guided tour of his childhood. His younger self is played by Cody Swanson, with a serious mien and a relentless focus on the "blue-steel beauty" of his dreams. Lurking behind thick, horn-rimmed glasses, Swanson negotiates this demanding role with humorous aplomb, but he could master a quicker and more reflexive recitation of the gift he's been obsessing about for probably half his life: AgenuineRedRyderCarbineAction200Shot RangeModelAirRifleWithaCombination TrailCompassandSundialSetRightintheStock.
Charles Kartali conveys the mild burnout and small pleasures of a midcentury midwestern dad, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the rickety, smoke-spewing furnace in the basement. Described unforgettably as a man "who worked in profanity like others worked in oil or clay," Kartali doesn't take full advantage of his character's jazz-riff, scat-swearing diatribes. As the boys' mother, Elizabeth Ann Townsend is very believable, bringing out her character's down-to-earth common sense.
All the other kids' roles are handled professionally, with Billy Lawrence contributing a properly whiny and juvenile Randy, even though he's several inches taller than his older brother. In Ralphie's posse (and here we use the term as Red Ryder or Gene Autry did), Louie Rosenbaum and Alex Biats create laughs as they dodge bully Scut Farkas (snarly Alex Mayes) and deal with the other glitches of growing up.
As adapted from the Shepherd material by Philip Grecian, some characters, such as Ralphie's love-smitten classmate, Esther Jane (played with crisp precision by Angela Holecko), have been expanded. Unfortunately, the episode in the Higbee's department store is played using an off-stage Santa voice, muting the crushing moment when Santa becomes like all the other adults and intones the dread phrase: "You'll shoot your eye out, kid." Still, this Story -- staged on Michael Ganio's warmly evocative set -- can connect generations and should be a Play House staple for a long time. Even until BB guns come back in style.