On my way into “A Christmas Story” at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center, I met two young people who had never seen the movie. Imagine, I thought, seeing all of Jean Shepherd’s wonderful set pieces for the very first time: the “triple-dog-dared” boy getting his tongue stuck to the frozen flagpole; nine-year-old Ralphie being forced to wear his gift of pink bunny pajamas; little Randy in his snow suit; “the Old Man’s” artistic approach to profanity.
Shepherd was the author of wistful semi-autobiographical books and short stories, several of which were cherry-picked and spun into the 1983 comedy “A Christmas Story,” about little Ralphie and his burning, yearning desire for Santa to bring him “an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock” in small-town Indiana in 1938. But that doesn’t look very likely, for as virtually every grown-up tells Ralphie (all together now, movie fans): “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
This new (to Atlanta) theatrical version of the movie was adapted by Philip Grecian, and Drew Fracher has directed it for Georgia Shakespeare as a little holiday treat for families.
Shepherd’s material is simply timeless, even if you’re too young to remember listening to “Little Orphan Annie” on the radio or driving downtown to look at the department store Christmas window displays. Those are the details. The emotional core is a well-meaning but typically spacey kid trying to make sense of a complex world of frazzled parents, neighborhood bullies, demanding teachers — and in Grecian’s adaptation, a cute little neighbor girl with a crush on Ralphie. And while today’s kids with a yen to shoot stuff are probably leaning more toward Xbox shooter games involving Uzis and zombies, children (and grown-ups who remember being one) can easily identify with Ralphie’s longing for that one single present that will make his life perfect.
In the movie, Shepherd himself was the voice of the narrator, the adult Ralph looking back on his boyhood. In the play, Allan Edwards portrays the adult narrator and is on stage throughout, playing a significantly larger role in explaining that one Christmas. In the film, Shepherd would set a scene or inject a comment, but the actors carried the story. Here Edwards shoulders the whole narrative, which sometimes pushes the family into a supporting role. It sounds like a fine distinction, but it nagged at me throughout the show. I doubt that it mattered a whit to my two young friends who hadn’t seen the movie.
But most of the acting is a blast, especially Mark Kincaid as the Old Man, Ralphie’s father, played in the movie with slump-shouldered curmudgeonliness by the great Darren McGavin. Kincaid’s Old Man has all the paternal tics, but he has more sparkle than McGavin did. A little running joke between him and Ralphie’s mother (Sherman Fracher), in which Dad’s excitement about the upcoming turkey dinner is understood as somehow representative of parental sex (ewwww), is one of several fun additions that weren’t in the movie. You just can’t imagine McGavin’s Old Man cornering Mom in the kitchen like this.
The kids — Cooper Driskell as Ralphie, Ian L’Abate as Randy, Eric Broner as Flick, Giovanni Tortorici as Schwartz, Shea Jones as Esther Jane, Alice Garriga as Helen and Whit Weinmann as Scut Farkas — are all excellent and adorable.
Georgia Shakespeare’s “A Christmas Story” may not deserve the A+++++++ that Ralphie fantasized getting on his school theme, but it shares so much DNA with the movie — principally Shepherd’s pitch-perfect writing about being a child and being an adult looking back on being a child — that it deserves to be another Atlanta theater holiday perennial, alongside the Alliance’s “Christmas Carol” and Horizon’s “Santaland Diaries.”