- FRA-GEE-LAY: The Old Man (Justin R.G. Holcomb) in a state of leg lamp-induced bliss in The Rep's production of Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story."
"A Christmas Story" is etched into American pop-culture consciousness. Like a living, breathing Norman Rockwell painting, it both celebrates and takes a few jabs at America's nostalgic view of "simpler, more innocent times." The film evokes a series of images and sounds: a tongue stuck to an icy pole, stretched too far; Santa Claus kicking a pudgy-faced blonde and bespectacled Ralphie down the slide with a menacing "HO HO HO"; the nightmarish chorus of "'You'll shoot your eye out"; the leg lamp. But, strip away the cultural references and what's left? What do we remember about the actual story at the heart of the film? Something about a BB gun? The humorous pains of growing up? Whatever your relationship with the film is, set that aside and come to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre fresh and ready to receive a joy-filled present wrapped in humor, love and a genuine passion for storytelling.
By unfortunate consequence of being repetitively aired for 24 hours nonstop every Christmas, "A Christmas Story" has become relegated to background noise for many of us, something amusing that we mostly ignore as we unwrap presents. As the actors performing "A Christmas Story" at The Rep will tell you, this doesn't do the story — or its author — justice. Today, Jean Shepherd's name might not be especially well-known, but his voice is: Shepherd narrated and co-wrote the script of the film, based on his own stories that he shared to many faithful listeners on his various radio shows throughout his career. From his late-night show on Manhattan's WOR-AM, 710, in the 1950s through his late-career appearances on NPR's "All Things Considered," he captivated listeners with his wry sense of humor and his honest approach in tackling the challenges of growing up. "I grew up listening to Jean Shepherd on the radio, listened to him every night," said John Ottavino, who plays a grown-up Ralphie, narrating the story onstage as a full participant in the play. "I'm excited to see if I can find his sense of humor and sense of humanity. He's a master storyteller and he made it look easy, but it's not," Ottavino said.
Having Ralphie as an adult on stage creates a different dynamic for the play. He's an actual character rather than just a voiceover, so the audience can more directly share in the story he's telling. "There's a different sense of why we're here. With the narrator onstage, we get a sense of why we need to be present for this play, and present for this holiday," said Claire Brownell, who plays Mother. Justin R.G. Holcolmb, who plays The Old Man (Ralphie's father), shared that sentiment. "This is a real communion, where performers are there, the audience is part of the energy, and with a show as joyous as this, knowing everyone has come to celebrate childhood and Christmas. You won't get that from watching the TBS marathon."
Director Mark Shanahan is no stranger to plays focused on childhood and growing up. He directed "Peter and the Starcatcher" at The Rep last spring. "The play is much funnier than the film," he said. "Making plays is also just different. A play is one of the last non-downloadable forms of entertainment we have, and it's a complete break from our phones. Looking at the setting, in the late '30s and '40s, there were no screens, just a radio, just people listening to stories," he said.
The play might seem timeless, but its setting is relevant. "Coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II, America was losing its innocence, and growing up itself. In this story, the family wants to hang onto each other as the world seems to be coming apart," Shanahan said.
The essence of the play, though, is still the joy and the humor of childhood. Even though it's partly a nostalgic look back, the story is also directly told through watching the young version of Ralphie and his hilarious interactions with other kids. "It's a perfect way to introduce kids to the theater," Brownell said. The young actors in the play, who have come up through The Rep's theater education programs, seem to be having a blast. "It's fun watching them watch the scenes, seeing what they think is funny. It's different than what I'm laughing at," said Rosemary Loar, who plays Miss Shields, the teacher. "The play doesn't talk down to kids, and that's what I love about it," she said. "This is going to be a special event for many people. They might only bring their whole family to theater like this once a year, or less," Shanahan said. "We want kids to come and see the possibilities of what the theater can be, to get them interested and working in the theater. It helps them become more compassionate, smarter, more integrated into the community. And the kids in this play are amazing."
As an added bonus, The Rep will have booths set up from the documentary project StoryCorps so that kids and grown-ups can record their own stories of their favorite Christmases, which will then be sent to the Library of Congress.
"A Christmas Story" opens Friday, Dec. 3, and plays through Monday, Dec. 26. Sign Interpreter Night is Wednesday, Dec. 8. More information is available at therep.org/attend/productions/achristmasstory.