Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Child's play

Barlow Adamson and Andrew Cekala dream of a Red Ryder bb gun.  Photo(s) by Andrew Brilliant.

I'm quite sure A Christmas Story (at the New Rep through December 24) is a nostalgia piece, but I'm not nearly as sure that it's a nostalgia piece about Christmas.  No, it seems more like an elegy for what its author, radio raconteur Jean Shepherd, at one point calls "kid-dom" (and what the rest of us would call "childhood") - that strange land, circumscribed by ineffectual, uncomprehending adults, yet essentially its own terra incognita, in which the young once scrambled by themselves, making their own small-scaled society with its treasures and terrors, and, of course, its own fun.  To watch this superficially cynical (but actually sweet) little fable about one lad's desperate attempt to talk Santa into bestowing a bb gun upon him on Christmas morning is to gaze through a mist of memory upon a lost world.

Think I'm kidding?  Ponder this: in A Christmas Story, the kids aren't wise-beyond-their-years, or technical whizzes; they don't crack jokes like Catskill comedians,  nor do they blog, or discuss their "personal brands" - and they certainly don't patronize their parents, much less attempt to "parent" their parents, because they're too spastic to function yet in the adult world.  They're kids as we used to imagine them, as we used to be able to admit they actually are: mostly average and often dopey, getting into trouble before they know it and making messes of things and generally almost shooting their eyes out - and always trying to scam the adult world even as they scan it for clues as to how things work.  And the adults gaze back at them almost as quizzically; in A Christmas Story, no parent would ever dream of being their kid's "best friend;" both generations think the other one is just plain weird.

In other words, A Christmas Story plays a lot like Jurassic Park; you half-expect a pterodactyl to flap through.  And stranger still, the parents actually PUNISH their children!  Physically!  Yet these episodes lead to no deep psychological trauma - and amazingly, no actual loss of love, either.  (Jean Shepherd was definitely not a psychologist, or he'd know that this is impossible.)  Perhaps most stunningly of all, while Shepherd's kids long for various toys and other material things, and are only too aware of the crummy reality of their lower-edge-of-the-middle-class condition, they also know how not to mind it, how to have a pretty good time anyway.  When little Ralphie, Shepherd's hero, doesn't get his "Red Ryder bb gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing that tells time," he's disappointed, sure, but not apoplectic.  When asked by his old man if he got what he wanted for Christmas, he answers "Almost," with a weary sense of philosophy, to which his old man simply answers, "Well, that's life."

And it is life - or life as we used to know it; a life in which we didn't pretend that our horizons were infinite, in which we were realistic about our limits and understood that love can only function within limits.  (Which is perhaps why Shepherd's evocation of familial affection is actually quite convincing.)  I can well imagine a millennial staring at this show as I might stare at a Martian, but to those of us of a certain age, it's kind of irresistible.  It reminds you of the way your parents loved you (and most of us were, indeed, loved), and of the way you loved them back.

Meanwhile, of course, Shepherd's sense of the tacky madness that infects American life is constantly expressed in hilarious detail.  Here we find once again the teachers obsessed with nice margins, the corny mail-order contests, the bumptious neighbors, the bunny pajamas and yes, the by-now-iconic lady's-leg lamp (above left).  (Shepherd's other great theme - the doomed rebellions of masculine urges against the feminine regime of the suburbs - is also often in evidence, as per Ralphie's humiliation below.)

Ralphie endures the Christmas generosity of the great-aunt who thinks he's a girl.

And the New Rep does well by Shepherd's vision.  Designer Dahlia Al-Habiel captures the hardscrabble of midwinter Indiana in a sprawling set, and if costumer Katherine O'Neill follows the familiar movie by updating the story's timeframe to the late 40's or so (Shepherd was born in 1921), well, that's okay because the jokes still work (and would continue to work into the 60's).  Translating a movie into a stage play requires fluid staging, and director Diego Arciniegas keeps things moving, while drawing from many of his actors performances that I actually preferred to the movie's (which I've always found a little broad and flat, aside from Darren McGavin). Barlow Adamson's energetic narrator, Stacey Fischer's sweet, sad, Mother, Margaret Ann Brady's frustrated schoolmarm ( and grizzled Christmas tree seller), and Gerard Slattery's caustic Santa Claus were all quite memorable.  And in the lead role of Ralphie, young Andrew Cekala handled himself with striking poise and genuine feeling.

Of the main ensemble, I'm afraid I was only slightly disappointed by Owen Doyle's "Old Man," (Ralphie's father).  I'm actually an old classmate of Mr. Doyle - so yes, I was reviewing him thirty years ago, back in college; he just can't get rid of me!  Owen is a talented guy, so I was surprised to find he hadn't yet relaxed into the role, and made the Old Man's frustrations and flare-ups (and humiliations) his own.  But technically the performance is all there.  And I would say that the kids are all as cute as can be, only the whole idea is that they aren't - so let's just say they're accurately rendered!  And if there are a few rough spots or missed beats in their scenes, that's okay, because you wouldn't want a highly polished production of A Christmas Story anyway, that would be a little creepy.  This particular Christmas memory may be all about how the holidays aren't what we pretend they are, but somehow it gets at their sincere essence just the same.

1 comment:

  1. A nice pre-Christmas review, plenty of nostalgia (kids aren't what they used to be, or aren't allowed to be). But, I buy it. Have a great holiday and looking forward to reading the Hub Review through 2012 and beyond!