Regional Reviews: St. Louis
A Christmas Story
There's nothing that says "Christmas" in America like the barely concealed avarice of children conditioned to expect a bounty under the tree. Fortunately for all of us, a writer of genius named Jean Shepherd found in that rampant greed a subject for the kind of loving satire that both celebrates and criticizes our human foibles.
Shepherd's screenplay for the 1983 film A Christmas Story was based on his stories published in the 1960s recounting his memories of a childhood in Hammond, Indiana, in the years before World War II. The film was an immediate and lasting hit. In the late 1990s, playwright Philip Grecian, working with the approval of Shepherd and the film's producers, wrote a stage adaptation, which had its successful premier in 2000sadly, a year after Shepherd's death.
The play, which has become a staple, is everything a holiday show should be: warm, large in its sympathies, nostalgic and often very funny indeed. It follows the familiar arc of the film, though there are differences of predictable sorts: the cast is not quite the same, and the exteriors are left to the audience's imagination. But the many who love the film are likely to be delighted with Mr. Grecian's version.
Director John McCluggage, who trained at Webster University, deserves full credit for the success of the Rep's production. The seven youngsters in his cast work as if they had known each other all their lives; all of them are experienced actors, but the level of polish and poise they bring to this ensemble is remarkable. The biggest responsibility falls on Jonathan Savage as the young Ralphie; he not only brings his character to vibrant life, but he does a beautiful job of blending physically and vocally with Jeff Talbott as his mature self, making the narrator's slipping into and out of his remembered past both believable and charming.
Mr. Talbott is perfectly cast as the mature version of Jean Shepherd's alter ego. Comfortable, wryly self-deprecating, intense without overplaying, he creates the kind of guy we'd all like to know. Marnye Young and Jeff Gurner, as his parents, might have stepped directly off the set of one of the 1940s radio programs to which the script constantly refers, so exactly do they capture the idioms and appearance of the era.
The designers of this production, especially sound designer Rusty Wandall and costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis, deserve great credit for their parts in bringing that era so convincingly to life.
It may be because I once rushed home from school to catch the secret code at the end of my favorite radio program, or because I burned with the same lust Ralphie has for that Red Ryder BB gun (though I don't remember that mine had a compass in the stock), but I had to fight to keep myself from melting into a sentimental puddle when the lights went down on this warm, charming, heartfelt and happy show.
The Repertory Theater's production of A Christmas Story will run through December 27; for tickets call 314-968-4925, or visit the web site at www.repstl.org.