Given the sheer numbers every Christmas movie is up against, it’s a wonder any of them end up in the holiday canon. We know and love “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” and it seems as though “Love, Actually” has inched its way into new holiday classic territory, but what of “The Star Wars Holiday Special” or, indeed, most of the fourth quarter content on the Hallmark Channel? There’s a lot of noise to cut through, but if a holiday movie makes it to the top with “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” it stays there.
Humorist Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story”—released in 1983 about one boy’s quest to score an Official Red Ryder Carbine Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle (with a compass and this thing which tells time built right in the stock!) for Christmas in 1940—is one of those movies that is infinitely watchable, the wide-eyed moments of Ralphie’s many pre-adolescent humiliations and defeats growing more epic with every viewing. And thanks to the magic of cable television, an entire generation grew up re-watching this strange little movie about an old-fashioned Midwestern Christmas in all its innocence multiple times every holiday season, memorizing most of the dialog in the process.
So when Actors Theatre of Louisville decided to add Philip Grecian’s stage adaptation of “A Christmas Story” to their holiday lineup in 2009, it felt like a natural progression. “A Christmas Carol” has been running every holiday season for decades and is a family tradition for many locals, but here was a holiday play for Generation X and Y. This is the final year of “A Christmas Story” at Actors Theatre, so fans of the live version should make their plans accordingly. The show runs through November 25.
Directed by Drew Fracher, this production represents four years of slight tweaks and adjustments to the initial 2009 run. Many cast members, including Justin R. G. Holcomb and Louisville native Jessica Wortham as Ralphie’s Old Man and Mother respectively, return for years in a row, creating a continuity that is almost as familiar as re-watching the film. Indeed, it’s been a particular pleasure to witness little Gabe Weible, who plays Ralphie’s strange little brother Randy, grow into his role over the last four years. The character of Ralphie is filled through a city-wide talent search every year, and this year’s hero is played by Steele Whitney, a seventh grader at St. Stephen Martyr School. His adult narrator stand-in is played with wry understatement by returning actor Larry Bull (“The Mystery of Irma Vep”).
The particular joy of watching the stage adaptation lies in waiting for each iconic moment from the film to make its appearance. Film purists will be happy to know that every “you’ll shoot your eye out” and “f-blank-blank-blank” is lovingly preserved and recreated, and when the Old Man exclaims “Frah-gee-lay!” over his “major award” crate, you can hear laughs of recognition start almost before he finishes his sentence. At times, you can hear patrons, perhaps unconsciously, whisper along with the line.
But the live show offers some additional layers of silliness and heart, too. Acting apprentices dressed like department store elves offer energetic (and slightly deranged) scene transitions, complete with manic dancing. They blow snow on the children with undisguised malice and play the feral dogs next door with unbridled glee. The elves play off the heightened emotions of childhood the story so successfully mines — when you’re 12, you have no perspective, so daily defeats feel as personal and malicious as an arm burn from bully Scut Farkas (Jack Lindsey, fresh off two seasons as sidekick Schwartz) and the adult-run world is as surreal as a gaggle of swing-dancing elves come to life.
But all good things must come to an end, and while “A Christmas Story” on stage is amazing fun for a fan of the film the first and second time around, after four years it might have just run its course, especially when the film still runs every holiday season on TV. There’s no word yet on whether Actors Theatre will fit in another holiday show between “Dracula” and “A Christmas Carol” next year (though it’s comforting to know that there are, to my knowledge, no scripts floating around for “The Star Wars Holiday Special”), but for this season, “A Christmas Story” offers a comforting cushion of levity and warmth between the family tragedies of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and the upcoming “True West.”