- 'A CHRISTMAS STORY': Jason Harper and Cole Ewing star.
The potency of nostalgia is in full, charming and funny view at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production of "A Christmas Story." Interesting that the nostalgia is for Christmas in the 1940s, which likely only tickles the memories of a small portion of the audience. But many more are likely nostalgic over the movie "A Christmas Story," which came out in 1983 and fairly soon after was recognized as an American holiday staple.
The Rep's production, directed by Nicole Capri, does right by "A Christmas Story" mostly thanks to sharp-eyed casting. It's been a good few months for Arkies on the Rep stage with Avery Clark's searing Hamlet and now Jason Harper's warm take on Ralph, who narrates the story of his younger self's pursuit of the holy grail of Christmas gifts — a Red Ryder BB gun. In the movie, the narrator is an off-screen voice, but in the play Harper is practically on stage the entire time and fills out a couple of smaller roles as well. Harper is an understated presence (with, naturally, for a former TV personality, a commanding voice) and finds and lands many of the script's numerous jokes.
It's probably no surprise that Capri, who leads the Rep's popular summer theater program for kids, has found a number of capable local young actors to fill the roles of Ralphie, his friends and the two bullies that make his life miserable. As Ralphie, Cole Ewing has an expressive face that registers the ups and downs (his triumphant moment when his Christmas wish comes true is especially great) with great precision. Laura Medford doesn't have a particularly big part as Mrs. Shields, Ralphie's excitable teacher, but she makes every moment she has count. Bill Timoney as Ralphie's dad (credited as "Old Man" in the program) has lots of highlights but might register the biggest laugh in the show with a well-timed local reference.
In comparing the film to the play, the play comes across less frantic, a little more focused on Ralphie's family and perhaps not as hilarious from beginning to end. There are parts that come across more clearly on stage at the Rep, such as Ralphie's odd brother Randy hiding under everything in sight and the Old Man's love for turkey being so sharp because of being constantly fed meat loaf and red cabbage dinners. While "A Christmas Story" is loaded with references to "The Lone Ranger," Esso stations, Simonize and other relics of the past, the dream of receiving the perfect gift on Christmas day is a notion that will never grow old. "A Christmas Story" has something to say about that and about how a family can survive the special insanity of the American Christmas — long may it wave.