- Goodbye, TNT marathon. The Play House delivers an electrifying Christmas Story.
So it is with A Christmas Story, again onstage at the Cleveland Play House. This near-genius piece of American reminiscence is so period-perfect and charming that the squishy sentimentality (of which there is plenty) never leads to saccharine reflux. Philip Grecian is listed as the playwright, but everyone understands -- or should -- that the bulk of insights and telling detail comes from the mind of Jean Shepherd, who wrote the original story, co-authored the movie with Leigh Brown and Bob Clark, and narrated the flick in his distinctive, triple-wry voice.
Most of the Play House cast from last year has returned, and it seems that director Seth Gordon has tightened the pacing so that there's rarely a slow moment. Christopher McHale once more takes on the narrator duties of adult Ralphie, and he has a disarming aura of an old buddy chewing the fat over a cracker barrel. Opening his arms to encompass the evocative, snowflake-themed set by Michael Ganio, McHale leads the audience back to Christmas in Hohman, Indiana, in the year 1938.
From there, Story rides a two-hour wave of intricate details to unerringly establish the period and to help even the youngest patrons make the leap back to a time before televisions were omnipresent, when cowboy hero Red Ryder was king of the wireless. (Nine-year-old Ralphie purchases a family-size can of Simoniz for his dad's Christmas present, since he had been swayed by the oft-repeated radio slogan: "Motorists Wise, Simoniz!")
Billy Lawrence, promoted from his slightly miscast role as younger brother Randy last year, hits all the marks as young Ralphie. He veers smoothly from reality to fantasy, dealing with local bully Scut Farkas (a character-elucidating name that competes favorably with Dickens' best) one minute and battling Black Bart's infamous mustachioed marauders the next. Lawrence is perfectly comfortable whether he's peering out of his dorky glasses or feverishly rewriting his theme about his dream gift: the Red Ryder 200-shot carbine action range model air rifle.
As the boys' Old Man, Charles Kartali reprises his tongue-in-cheek performance, with more edge to his obscenity-laden screeds directed at neighbor Bumpus' dogs and his calamitous furnace. While never uttering an actual swear word, Kartali spins a minor symphony of nonsense and near-rhymes that gets the idea across. And his obsession over the fishnet-stocking-clad leg lamp, his "major award" for winning a contest, is as honest and pure as Ralphie's yearning for his "blue-steel beauty."
All the children are portrayed with deft precision, including Alex Biats as spontaneously screamy Schwartz and Louie Rosenbaum as hapless Flick (his is the tongue that gets stuck to a frozen lamppost). Naomi Hill is a prim but gutsy Helen, Alex Mayes is nasty as ever as Farkas, and Angela Holecko has nice moments as Esther Jane, the girl with a crush on Ralphie. Jackson Daugherty is the right age and size for Randy, but he fidgets a bit too much with his face and loses some of the tension of this kid who prefers hanging out under the sink.
Much of the heart of Story resides with Mother, played with offhand housekeeping briskness by Elizabeth Ann Townsend. Chiding Ralphie for wanting a BB gun ("You'll shoot your eye out!"), she is wise enough to clam up about Ralphie's beatdown of Farkas at the schoolyard. She's the mom we all would have wanted, minus the soap-in-the-mouth therapy for accidentally launching a dirty word.
The one major misstep is the same this year, involving the keystone scene when Ralphie confronts Santa Claus at Higbee's department store. It is played using a roll-in Santa house, but without a real Kris Kringle or any elves present. This is the least appropriate place to rely on theater of the mind, since every kid and adult in the audience would relate to the thrill and terror of approaching the imposing presence of Claus himself. But since he's not there, the scene goes slack, and Santa's repetition of the eye-injury trope falls well short of devastating.
But, as ever, the Shepherd-inspired language of the script saves the day, using a mock-heroic tone to add color and depth to the simplest thoughts. Instead of saying the Old Man swore a lot back in Illinois, old Ralphie avers that his dad "had woven a tapestry of obscenity over Lake Michigan that still hangs there today." That's the kind of luxuriant wordplay that can bring audiences back, again and again.