What do you sound like when you talk about the holidays of your childhood? Do you summon the ghosts of Christmas Past with warmth and wistfulness in your voice, laughing over youthful fixations on the presents you'd receive and quirky family traditions? In considering the enduring popularity of the 1983 film A Christmas Story, you can't discount the tone of its narrator. Whether or not the experiences described by author Jean Shepherd truly happened or he felt any affection for his family and neighbors in Depression-era Indiana, he sounds as if he cares, as if those incidents surrounding his quest at age 9 to secure a Red Ryder BB gun from Santa are so vital to him, even decades later, that he must recount them in life-or-death detail.
Many of those details are re-created with admirable fidelity in Zach Theatre's production of Philip Grecian's 2000 stage adaptation (not to be confused with the musical version seen on Broadway in 2012 and now playing at San Antonio's Woodlawn Theatre), which hews closely to the screenplay by Shepherd, Leigh Brown, and director Bob Clark. Fans can count on seeing the old man's prize lamp, Flick's tongue stick to the flagpole, little brother Randy "pig out" at breakfast, Ralphie's fantasy rescues of loved ones from danger with his Red Ryder rifle, and his urgent climb back up the slide from Santa's chair to tell the department store St. Nick what he wants. Guided by Artistic Director Dave Steakley, the cast strives to give the audience what they love from the film without slavishly imitating the original, and while the adult actors sometimes push the broadness to the brink of cartoonishness – a fine line the film actors managed to walk more deftly – the effort overall is appealing, especially from the young actors, led on opening night by a winningly earnest Keaton Brandt as Ralphie and a hilariously animated William May as Randy. (They share the roles with Magnus Bohls and Diego Rodriguez, respectively.)
What keeps the play from being just a note-for-note cover of the movie is the physical presence of the narrator. Here, the adult Ralph shares the stage with his younger self, moving through his old home, sitting in his classroom, occasionally stepping into a scene to play someone from his past – he's part Stage Manager from Our Town, part Tom from The Glass Menagerie. This heightens Ralph's relationship to his past and demands the actor do much more than evoke the film's disembodied voice. He has to live in this memory. With his folksy charm and easy manner (not to mention ample experience), Marco Perella would seem a fine fit for the role, but on opening night, he didn't sound at home with Shepherd's deliciously overwritten prose, and his spinning of the yuletide yarn lacked the immediacy of personal experience. He seemed a guest in someone else's Christmas story. That didn't take all the shine off this holiday tinsel, but it left a feeling not unlike opening the shiniest package under the tree and finding socks.
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