'A Christmas Story' a refreshing answer to holiday plays
It's not easy for theaters to find a Christmas show for families that hasn't been produced year after year. Or to find one that's less treacly than the standard fare.
This holiday season, the Foothills Theatre Company has found a refreshing answer to both problems in "A Christmas Story" adapted by Philip Grecian from the 1983 motion picture of the same title. Both play and film are based on Jean Shepherd's collection of short stories "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," which were published in Playboy magazine during the 1960s. Be assured, however, this play is family fare.
One of the more memorable scenes you'll remember if you've seen the play or film involves a young boy who defies a dare from several of his classmates and touches his tongue to a frozen flagpole. He doesn't believe their warnings that his tongue will stick to it. According to the narration, the fire department, two police cars and the power company all come to his rescue.
This is a play about an adult reminiscing on a childhood Christmas spent in the fictional, all-American town Hohman, Ind., in 1938. Older Ralph remembers a Christmas when all he wanted was a Daisy Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Air Rifle, and the play is driven by his wily efforts to persuade his parents to buy him the BB gun, in spite of his mother's fear that he will shoot his eye out. The gun is actually a fictional model with a compass embedded and a sundial carved into the stock.
This is a play that would appeal to children because there are a number of kids in it doing things that kids typically do: Ralphie imagining all of the conquests he will make with the rifle he so yearns for, plotting with his friends Schwartz and Flick, and all of them being chased by the terrible arm-twisting bully Scut Farkas. There's Esther Jane, a little older than Ralphie, but very much interested in him, more than he is in her. And there's Ralphie's younger brother, Randy, who invariably has to go to the bathroom as soon as his mother has finished bundling him up to send him outside to play.
The humor in the play will appeal to adults as they remember their own childhoods, their parents and their parents' idiosyncrasies that seemed so set in stone, until one grew up.
Bill Mootos as Ralphie's Old Man is the highlight of the show. He captures that quality of a father who's so sure of himself, even when he has no right to be. He acts as though he knows all the answers to the newspaper contests he enters religiously, although his wife is the one who provides most of the answers, except to the sports questions. He never stops to wonder why he's the only one attacked by the neighbor's dogs or to admit that his wife may not be nearly as fond as he is of the outlandish prize he wins in one newspaper contest.
Marianna Bassham needs a little more definition as Ralphie's mother, but on the whole she does well. She's good at being tough as she makes him put soap in his mouth when he utters the creative swear words he picks up from his father.
One of the keys to the play is Older Ralph, who serves as the narrator to his past, as well as playing several small roles. Unfortunately, Shelley Bolman in the role delivers most lines of narration as if he's an omniscient Superman, until they all sound overblown and repetitive. It would be far more interesting if he played them with more emotional honesty, as if he were really thinking about and experiencing his past. Bolman has proved in other shows that he's talented actor capable of giving us a more richly nuanced narrator.
It feels as if director Jeremy Johnson didn't trust the material to be interesting enough, which it certainly is, and so allowed or encouraged Bolman to pump it up. Also, Johnson should have done a lot more to help the children with their acting and projection of lines.
Erik D. Diaz's set captures the feeling of a simple 1938 home with Ralphie's bedroom hovering above the kitchen stove and snow represented with piles of cotton.
The play is cleverly and colorfully written. It may not come as a surprise to know that the material inspired the television show "The Wonder Years."
Foothills' production doesn't really live up to the script or to its usual standards. But audiences are likely to cut the show considerable slack, knowing that it is, after all, a Christmas production.
"A Christmas Story," adapted by Philip Grecian
Through Dec. 23
Foothills Theatre, Worcester, Mass.
Tickets: $30; $19 for students
Info: 508-754-4018, www.foothillstheatre.com