Doug Mckechnie ( left ) and Matthew Levy in A Christmas Story. Photo by James Pelton. Playwright: Philip Grecian based on the movie by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark. At: Theater Wit at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont. Phone: 773-327-5252-; $20 - $30 . Runs through: Dec. 30
The 1983 film A Christmas Story is both bane and boon to Philip Grecian's stage adaptation of the story based on Jean Shepherd's novel, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.
Set in 1940 in an all-American small town in the Indiana heartland, the story of young Ralphie Parker and his Christmas quest for a Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model BB rifle ( with a compass in the stock ) has become iconic in the almost quarter-century since the movie was released.
The movie is an exquisite balancing act: It celebrates the innocence of youthful dreams and their hard-earned fulfillment while also offering a sharp-witted view of the very real anguishes and perils of childhood. On the screen, A Christmas Story is a near-perfect blend of nostalgia and gimlet-eyed truth. From the safety of adulthood, it's easy to laugh at memories of the neighborhood bully. But dealing as a 10-year-old with the likes of bad seed spawn such as Scut Farkus? A Christmas Story makes it crystal clear that it's no task for the faint-hearted.
Inevitably, stage productions of A Christmas Story invite comparisons to the movie. That's a double-edged sword: The show's title is a box-office draw through dint of sheer familiarity. But with that familiarity comes almost impossibly high standards; standards Theatre Wit's A Christmas Story falls well below. With the film readily available, there's just no reason for director James Pelton's production – It's flat and laborious where it should sparkle and snap. You can see the cast working: Moments that should ring with spontaneity and joy instead come across as earnest acting school exercises. There's an extremely young cast at work here - more than half of the group has yet to graduate from middle school - and they just don't have the skills the show demands. Characters that should play as lovable and quirky come across as severely mentally challenged, lines that should soar are swallowed into intelligibility; scenes that should zip become sodden with sluggish pacing.
The production values don't help: Apparently working with a less-than-adequate budget, Courtney O'Neill's set is spare to the point of impressionistic, something that doesn't work in a show intended to be a realistic 'Tribute to the Original, Traditional, One-Hundred-Percent, Red-Blooded, Two-Fisted, All-American Christmas.' And while the film's device of having the adult Ralph provide voice-over narration imbues the film with a bittersweet grace, it merely pulls the audience out of the story here. Finally, Pelton has paid scant attention to small moments, leading to an overall lack of authenticity. It's hard to believe, for example, that a grown ( non-cartoon ) man would manhandle a box clearly marked 'fragile' in the bumbling, Three Stooges fashion that Mr. Parker does when his prized leg lamp arrives.