In Actors Theatre of Louisville’s new production of A Christmas Story, it’s striking how distinctly the emotions of the characters resonate, while at the same time, the world those characters inhabit feels fundamentally different from the world outside the theatre.
The play is largely faithful to the original screenplay, and captures the purity and ferocity of young Ralphie Parker’s holiday quest to for a Red Ryder BB-gun. Although, in the play, the adult Ralph Parker narrates the story from the stage and the actor playing him (Larry Bull), walks through the colorful, multi-tiered set unseen by the other characters, a la A Christmas Carol. Seeing adult Ralph walking around, cheerfully guiding us through his childhood schemes and scrapes takes some audience focus away from young Ralphie (Henry Miller) as a character. (For one, the audience knows right away that the boy will not, as everyone warns him, shoot his own eye out.)
A Christmas Story is based on a screenplay written in the 1980s, which itself was itself based on Jean Shepherd stories from the 1960s. The play is set in 1940 and adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian in 2000. A Christmas Story was written to be viewed by an audience looking in on an earlier era. Even so, the distance between those two worlds seems to have grown even since the play was first produced eleven years ago. This is due in part to the growth of technology, particularly into the lives of children.
Imagine, for example, trying to re-tell A Christmas Story in a contemporary setting: Ralph and his friends Schwartz and Flick would be sending and receiving text messages tracking the whereabouts of the bully Scut Farkas. Want to stage the scene where Flick accepts a dare to put his tongue on a frozen flagpole to see what will happen? Go ahead, but you may need to explain to the audience why someone doesn’t just access the internet and type “frozen flagpole tongue stick.”
In addition, the attraction Ralphie feels for the air rifle is in part because he wants to be a cowboy. In one fantasy sequence, Ralphie is encouraged by a cowboy (also played by Larry Bull) who is holding a rifle and referencing Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Ralphie’s dream of the air rifle is fueled by his fascination with a mythic past. That fascination isn’t strictly gone in 2011 (BB guns are still for sale at Wal-Mart and elsewhere) but our focus seems to have shifted to the future.
Ralphie’s father (known as The Old Man and played for the third straight year by Justin R.G. Holcomb) ultimately gives Ralphie the air rifle and says that he’s not worried about the boy handling it because The Old Man, himself, had had an air rifle as a child. Now, of course, many of the coveted items on children’s Christmas lists weren’t even invented when today’s parents were young. When you’re giving a child a gift you’ve never used and barely understand, how do you caution him or her about its potential dangers?
Or, put another way, what’s the high-tech equivalent of Don’t shoot your eye out?