A Christmas Story is the little cult movie that could. A fine if unexceptional release back in 1983 could not in any way have foreshadowed 24-hour cable TV marathons; a Broadway musical; a museum; healthy niche markets in leg lamps and BB guns; and yes, year-round quotable lines like, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
But radio personality Jean Shepherd–the man behind the phenomenon–not only directly tapped into hardscrabble Midwestern loyalty with his semiautobiographical In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, but also into a timeless feeling on what an odd and often funny thing memory really is. The wisdom of age gives us new ways and words with which to share it, true, but it falls to us to find the precise words for the precise feelings at those precise moments in the past. The smallest feelings can bear the weight of the grandest word.
So per the good tidings of the season, that fond search can be found in a straight-play adaptation by Philip Grecian that’s been happily and warmly revived at Theatre at the Center in Munster, just a stone’s throw away from Shepherd’s native Hammond. And despite an early winter storm a few days earlier, its opening night audience–including Hammond mayor Tom McDermott, Jr.–did indeed prove loyal.
The plot–vignettes tied with seasonal holly, ivy and ice-caked power lines–is nigh-scripture in these parts: Ralphie Parker (Nate Becker) wants (in one breath, now) an Official-Red-Ryder-Two-Hundred-Shot-Carbine-Action-Range-Model-Air-Rifle-with-a-compass-and-this-thing-that-tells-time-built-right-into-the-stock (whew), but, parental concerns about ophthalmology aside, dreams just don’t come true that easily during the Depression.
First, there’s siblings to watch (Nolan Moss as the amusingly ineffectual Randy); bullies to suffer through (Arthur Andersen, V as Scut Farkus); teachers to measure up to (Susan Gosdick as Miss Shields); and of course, parents parents parents in all their wonder and mystery (John Lister as the Old Man; Linda Gillum as Mother). All filtered through Ralphie’s adult self (Rod Thomas), serving as omnipresent narrator and even filling in bit parts.
It’s an adaptation that rests heavily on Adult Ralph, the biggest speaking part, and director Linda Fortunato was fortunate to nab Thomas. He’s a great raconteur: He can talk talk talk, for sure, but he also gets Sheperd’s ham-on-wry style: he laces his relatively minor childhood events with great suspense and tension, and recounts them with a twinkle in the eye that says “I know this sounds silly now, but back then, it mattered.”
For lovers of the film seeing the play, it may be striking for them to realize how little kid Ralphie actually speaks. Fortunato also scored with Becker, who foreshadows Ralphie’s future career by being a gifted motormouth whenever he does speak, never once tripping over “Official-Red-Ryder-[et cetera et cetera],” and with a lovably sneaky demeanor to match.
Said film lovers may also be thankful that the Old Man and Mother avoid falling into Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon-shaped molds and make something of their own. Lister may be a pinch more childish than one would expect from a blue-collar stiff, but he understands the Old Man’s want to have something to be proud of, be it a stable home or a major award. Gillum is firm bedrock, the very model of a not-quite-modern wife, the one who really ran the house in those days.
Grecian’s is a sturdy adaptation, borrowing equally from the film and its source novel, and is knitted together well-enough to link together the many separate plot lines. And even if there are a few loose threads (like a burgeoning young crush on Ralphie by the young Esther Jane, a sweet Hannah Clare Horner), it still makes a cozy sweater. Even in a unit-set environment (by Jack Magaw), Fortunato’s work is respectful of the material’s history but also sets her own pace. Her farcically choreographed “Battle of the Lamp” is a highlight, but she knows when to let things sink in, like the scene following an unexpected alley brawl. Shepherd could dissect childhood minutiae like no one else, but he and Fortunato know when to look up and see the Big Picture happening.
So as the Christmas season is traditionally one for the Big Picture–peace on earth, or at least goodwill toward others, Munster’s Story–be it modern mythology or a scrappy story we’ve all seen and heard too many times to count–is as good an occasion as any to ring it in. The weather won’t give to winter easily, so at least this show can help keep everyone safe and warm.
“A Christmas Story” runs through December 27 at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, IN. There is free parking. Performances are on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; and Sundays at 2:30 pm; and select Thursday and Sunday evenings and Saturday matinees. Individual tickets ($40-$44) are available via the box office at (219) 836-3255 or online here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Our misunderstanding that this production was the musical version of A Christmas Story led us to accept press tickets for the opening performance. As our readers are aware, ChicagolandMusicalTheatre only reviews and promotes productions in the musical theatre genre, and we only accept press invitations to these shows. While our error creates a disconnect between these two practices, the decision to publish this non-musical review is an easy one. Theatre at the Center produces high quality work, and its representatives, both at TATC and the Heron Agency, are friends of ChicagolandMusicalTheatre.