Nutty nostalgia heightens the knowing humor of Syracuse Stage’s A Christmas Story
We like familiarity and assurance at the holidays. No matter how many times we have seen them, The Messiah and The Nutcracker will remain in demand. With Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story, Syracuse Stage has now given us the four popular and reliable secular holiday narratives, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries. This time it’s the one about the boy yearning for a BB gun and the loss of the family turkey. In each we endure the frustration and humiliation of the main character before getting to the end we crave. Each time we throw aside suspense because we want to know going in how it’s going to come out.
Set in Hohman (aka Hammond), Ind., a working-class suburb of Chicago, sometime after the Great Depression, A Christmas Story enjoys a richer subtext than the other three. First there’s the paradoxical nostalgia for long-ago hard times, when a “new car” was a broken-down wreck, and dinner might consist of meatloaf and red cabbage every night. It was also a time of no cell phones and less cynicism. More interesting is the relationship between the boy, Ralphie (Nicholas
Deapo), and his usually flummoxed father, always called the Old Man (Charles Kartali). Although a more put-upon fool than other clown fathers, like Dagwood Bumstead or Homer Simpson, the Old Man always earns Ralphie’s love. His is a piquant sweetness, though, never dripping into sentiment.
Playwright Philip Grecian wrote this authorized adaptation of Bob Clark’s 1983 movie, A Christmas Story, a decade ago, which has called for much shoehorning and trimming. The basis of the film and play are five fictionalized radio reminiscences of Jean Shepherd (1921-1999), who once attracted a cult audience on WOR in New York City. Very much a child of the 1960s, Shepherd’s hip, ironic tone colors every line of dialogue. In the movie we hear Shepherd’s own distinctive intonations in voice-over. Here, more intrusively, we have the person of the grown-up Ralph (Timothy Davis-Reed) on stage, usually unseen by other characters. Sometimes he improvises walk-on roles, like the Christmas tree salesman.
Popular as A Christmas Story has been with regional companies, like other theater pieces adapted from the cinema, it’s a monster to stage. To solve these problems Syracuse Stage imported director Seth Gordon, who helmed the show numerous times at Cleveland Play House. He knows how to guarantee that several simultaneous sets designed by Michael Ganio—the living room, the school room, the Christmas tree lot, Higbee’s Department Store—zoom in on silent casters, exactly on cue. Putting aside the artistry of this show, it’s a Swiss Army knife of logistical finesse.
All the best-remembered lines from the movie are faithfully recreated, including the repeated enjoinder, even from Santa, that a BB gun “will put your eye out.” Or the bar of soap to the mouth after the uttering of a curse that was not exactly “Fudge!” The winning of the leg lamp, as hideous a piece of kitsch as ever imagined, arrives in a huge box big enough to crawl in. In Shepherd’s original monologues many of these episodes were delivered separately, but here they’re part of a rising arc.
Imported also from Cleveland Play House are three adult players who have taken these roles previously. Charles Kartali’s Old Man brings a touch of Don Quixote about him, always charging off on fools’ errands. Brunette Elizabeth Ann Townsend, kind of a shorter Rosalind Russell, gives the mother layers of resonance. We all know she’s smarter than the Old Man, but in those pre-Friedan days, she maintains her equilibrium without ever seeming submissive. Pat Nesbit allows the teacher Mrs. Shields much flexibility, a benign authoritarian who morphs into the Wicked Witch of the West in Ralphie’s dreams.
Unusual for a Syracuse Stage production, much of the action here is carried by seven youthful actors recruited from local school and summer programs. Actually, it’s extraordinary for any local talent to have this much time on stage, let alone seven performers, of whom the oldest is 12. This risk was met by casting the audition net wide, and then rehearsing the kids with the rigor expected of the palace guards in training. They speak with full-throats to the back of the theater without body mikes. What you get is a professional production that delivers more than enough laughs per buck to justify the costs of admission.
Nicholas Deapo, last seen as Tiny Tim in the 2006 A Christmas Carol, makes the role of Ralphie his own, in part because he bears almost no physical relationship to blue-eyed Peter Billingsley in the movie. Round-faced but dark-haired, Deapo imports a little of the demeanor of Charlie Brown, an emotional cousin of Ralphie’s from the get-go. Deapo has a wonderful downcast walk, so much so that you almost expect him to groan Charlie’s line, “Rats.” In a rapid change of mood, Deapo deftly turns Ralphie into an imagined non-Charlie heroic figure, as when he wields his Red Ryder BB gun to bring down Black Bart and his gang.
An irresistible scene-stealer, Hunter Metnick as Randy, Ralphie’s little brother, is also the smallest member of the cast. This means that when Randy is supposed to hide by squeezing into a tight place, he all but disappears. He gamely follows his mother’s dare to wallow his face into a bowl of cereal and delivers loud, rooting pig grunts on command.
Schwartz (Tristan Tierney) and the taller Flick (Ted Potter) are a team of mischiefmakers, distinguished in part by their hats.
Flick’s pre-World War II leather pilot’s helmet with goggles is one of costumer David Kay Mickelsen’s triumphs. Schwartz is a silver-tongued plotter, but it is poor Flick’s tongue that gets stuck to the lamp post, an episode of excruciating comic sadism.
Clad in a coonskin cap and with lethal-looking braces like razor wire, the bully Farkus (Danny Mulvihill) makes the most imposing entrance of the show, heralded by the French horns of the Wolf’s theme from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. More a tormentor of Flick than of Ralphie, he’s tough and mean. But the harder they come, the harder they fall.
Imposing Helen (Madison Gregory) writes themes too formidable for Mrs. Shields, and is the only kid not afraid of Farkus. Lovely Esther Jane (Sara Goodwin) has the sweets for Ralphie, a reassurance denied Charlie Brown.
After more than 10 years of holiday musicals co-produced with the Syracuse University Drama Department, A Christmas Story works all its magic just with action and the spoken word. The 1983 movie received mixed reactions upon its release, but after widespread exposure on cable networks HBO and TNT, it has become the No. 1 holiday film on several rankings. This stage version has found winning ways more quickly. It’ll knock your eye out.
This production runs through Dec. 30. See Times Table for information.
Lamp unto my feet: Nicholas Deapo, Elizabeth Ann Townsend and Charles Kartali in Syracuse Stage’s A Christmas Story.