FLORIDA WEEKLY EXCLAIMS: YOU’D HAVE TO BE A GRINCH TO NOT ENJOY “JEAN SHEPHERD’S A CHRISTMAS STORY”
by nancy STETSON
You’d have to be a Grinch to not enjoy “Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story” at Florida Repertory Theatre.
This good-natured holiday play unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve and reminds you what it was like to be a kid, your entire world ruled by grownups.
Set in 1938 in fictional Hohman, Ind., it transports us back to a simpler time when kids listened to radio programs, read kids’ magazines and handwrote theme papers for school using No. 2 pencils.
Bullies would twist your arm behind your back or wash your face with snow. Friends would double-dog-dare you to do something reckless. And girls … girls were still a mystery.
Ralphie Parker (Henry Crater), age 9, anxiously looks forward to each day’s mail deliveries (this is back when there were two a day: morning and afternoon); he’s waiting for his Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder ring. But what he really wants for Christmas, is a Red Ryder carbine action, 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and “this thing that tells time” (a sundial).
But all the adults in his life, from his parents to his teacher to even (gasp) Santa Claus, think that’s a terrible idea. “You’ll shoot your eye out!” they tell him.
Philip Grecian adapted this play from the 1983 cult movie that was based on various stories written by Jean Shepherd.
I grew up listening to Mr. Shepherd tell his tales on the radio; his bemused, avuncular style was like hearing a guy at a bar tell a really engaging story. His genius was in remembering what it was truly like to be a kid: the fantasies, the hopes and wishes, the crazy, illogical kid logic. He’d talk about his adventures with his pals, Schwartz and Flick.
It’s all here in “A Christmas Story”: the kid brother (Landon Maas) who likes to hide under the sink or behind the couch, the argument over whether a tongue can freeze to a metal pole in winter, the internal debate over whether Santa really exists or not, but ultimately choosing to believe because, after all, you don’t want to be overlooked at Christmas.
Michael Scott as the adult Ralph narrates the play, becoming, at times, various characters in the action (Red Ryder, a Christmas tree salesman, a deliveryman). But he also shadows the young Ralphie in scenes, commenting on the action, explaining but also reacting, as he relives his childhood.
Mr. Scott seems a little young for the role (he’d be 86 in 2015), but his easygoing, genial style wins you over and helps anchor and structure the play.
Conversely, the kid Ralph seems older than 9 (his playbill bio says he’s 13), but he does a good job delivering a wide range of emotions.
The set by Jim Hunter is a mixture of realism and a stylized outdoor winter scene. The Parker home, in the center of the stage, is an oasis of warm earth tones surrounded by giant white fir trees with oversized snowflakes printed on them.
Rachel Burttram and Brendan Powers play Ralph’s parents: his mother efficient and knowledgeable and loving, his dad (“the Old Man”) slightly gruff and more than a little goofy and easily distracted.
Ms. Burttram made me laugh with her moments of exasperation that she hides from her husband; she also has a great moment as a scary flying monkey from “The Wizard of Oz.” Mr. Powers had the audience laughing with his perpetual cluelessness and his G-rated cursing that sounds R-rated but isn’t. (As the adult Ralph says about the Old Man: “He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.”)
The two (who are a couple in real life) share a sweet moment as they slow dance to Christmas music in their living room.
Viki Boyle, as Ralph’s schoolteacher, seems underutilized. There were some lighting problems that often left her character in the shadows.
Director Jason Parrish does a good job with this production, but it falters at times when the kids seem too Disney sweet, more “adorable” rather than funny and real. And on a few occasions, the young actors don’t seem like kids at all, but more like an adult’s idealized version of what they think a kid is like.
The kids in Mr. Shepherd’s tales were never like that, which was their wide appeal and instant recognition: They were genuine, authentic kids.
(Dillion Everett, as Scut Farkas, is a bully through-and-through, edgy and mean.)
“A Christmas Story” isn’t sappy, but light, sweet and funny. It made the audience laugh, but also spurred them to reminisce at intermission about their own childhoods.
If you love the movie, you will likely enjoy this staged version. It is somehow soothing, like hearing a familiar bedtime story over and over again.
There’s a strange, yuletide comfort in knowing that Flick’s tongue will stick to the frozen pole, that the Parkers’ furnace will act up and belch smoke, that the Old Man will win a lamp whose base is in the shape of a woman’s leg in a fishnet stocking (and Mrs. Parker will feel it’s in bad taste).
We’ll never be 9 again, but “A Christmas Story” transports us back to how it was, at least for a couple hours.