By Dan Hagen
Given the demographic prominence of the baby boomers, it’s almost surprising that we don’t have more stories focusing on the joys peculiar to postwar, precocious-child Christmases.
But there are, at least, two, and they are now safely ensconced as holiday classics — Charlie Brown’s first animated special, and the play now on the boards at the Little Theatre — “A Christmas Story,” a faithful adaptation of the 1983 film.
I know, this Jean Shepherd material is really pre-baby boomer, dated by such references as the Little Orphan Annie radio serial that began in 1930, and the Red Ryder comic strip, which started in 1938. But I would argue that Shepherd, born in 1921, truly anticipated the baby boomer Christmas — the experience familiar to that increasingly affluent mid-century consumer-child who had been beguiled by advertising into obsession with some particular toy, in this case a “Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time.”
|'A Christmas Story' at the Little Theatre in Sullivan|
Director Edward Carnigan has cast his show — which looked like a sellout Sunday — to please fans of the movie. John McAvaney is adult Ralph, the narrator who is recalling the story for us. He’s effective in the cowboy fantasy scheme, but needs to vary his line readings more, generally.
My old friend Jack Milo is dad. Milo and the movie’s Old Man, Darren McGavin, share certain qualities. Both are gruff and masculine and — when necessary — loud, and both have a sly and deadpan comic flair. Milo says his essential quality is being “subtle,” but — ahem — I don’t think that it’s it exactly. Milo gets the bits that always amuse me in this piece, the strange faux-cursing that the Old Man emits when he engages in his beloved battles with the furnace: “Blagojevich dog-nabbed cinnamon dish!!!,” stuff like that.
When the part of mother is well-played, as it is here by Ashtia Jewel, the audience’s heart goes out to her, saddled as she is with a younger son Randy who crawls under things, a husband oblivious enough to put a sexy leg-lamp in the front window and a older son Ralphie who seems determined to shoot his eye out.
Her loving nature peeks through the frantic events, and there are hints that she’s smarter than her husband, but keeps that fact to herself. In any case, she reads a lot and seems to require the escape hatch of fantasy — she knows an awful lot about the Lone Ranger and Doc Savage.
Randy is creditably played by Vincent Fiore, although I wish his snowsuit had looked as immobilizing as it’s supposed to be. The child actors are all fine, particularly Zoe Bowers who plays Ester Jane. She projects her crush on Ralphie with a winsome sweetness that rings true.
The Chicago actress Mary Redmon makes her debut on the Little Theatre stage in the role of Ralphie’s teacher. She’s hilarious, wringing every laugh available out of a teacher’s pathetic quest for even margins on theme papers. She soars in the fantasy scenes — whether she’s exclaiming that Ralphie’s moronic little essay has justified her entire existence or springing into action as a witch with a laugh every bit as wicked as Margaret Hamilton’s.
The show’s centerpoint is, of course, Ralphie and 13-year-old Kyle Klein II takes that responsibility in stride. He’s an assured actor who is particularly effective in the Mitty-like fantasy sequences that give the show its biggest laughs.
A method actor, Klein told my friend Paul Wood at the Champaign News-Gazette that he actually tested the double-dog daring feat of sticking your tongue on a frozen light pole.
“We passed by a light pole on the way to McDonald's, and we tried sticking our tongues to it,” he said. “They didn't stick, though.”
And that, my friends, is dedication.
Incidental Intelligence: The cast includes Oliver Adamson, Ian Cardwell, Blaine Lehman, Nicholas Wilson, Marty Harbaugh, Heather Dore Johnson-Weber, Josh Houghton, A.J. Zaccari and Hope Miller.
The comedy has scenic design by Noel Rennerfeldt, lighting design by Chris Benefiel and stage management by Jeremy Phillips.
Performances will run through Dec. 22. Tickets may be purchased by calling The Little Theatre on the Square Box Office at (217)-728-7375 or online at www .thelittletheatre.org.