‘Christmas Story' leaves audiences with that warm, fuzzy feeling


Gary Wells as Ralphie, center in pink bunny suit, performs with, clockwise from left, Ed Hunter as the Old Man, Nadia Cox as Randy, Adam Lishawa as Ralph the Narrator and Laurel Ring as Mother in “A Christmas Story.”

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 29, 2011 at 6:43 p.m.

Just in time for the holiday season, the Gainesville Community Playhouse is producing Philip Grecian's amusing and charming comedy, “A Christmas Story,” at the Vam York Theater. Based on the movie classic by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark (named in 2007 as the all-time best Christmas movie by AOL) the play takes audiences back to a simpler time and place.

Facts

‘A Christmas Story'

What: Gainesville Community Playhouse production based on Jean Shepherd's 1983 film.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 18
Where: Vam York Theater, 4039 NW 16th Blvd.
Tickets: $16, $10 for students
Info: 376-4949 or www.gcplayhouse.org

It's 1938 in Hohman, Ind. Families gather for meals around the kitchen table; fathers come home from work and trade stories with mothers who have been at home all day; kids are told to eat their breakfast before bundling up in heavy outdoor gear to face the cold of a winter's walk to school.

One boy in particular, Ralphie, the hero of the story, dreams of a Christmas when he'll get a “Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Ranger model air rifle with a compass on this thing which tells time built right into the stock.” When he reveals his wish, the reaction by friends and adults alike is a unanimous, scornful, “You'll shoot your eye out!”

Ralphie's Christmas quest is told onstage by grown-up Ralph, who emerges from the audience at the play's beginning and describes the action and feelings of the characters, much as the Stage Manager does in Thornton Wilder's “Our Town.” The difference here is that grown-up Ralph is representing the boy, Ralphie, on stage. Adam Lishawa, who plays Ralph, must be inside young Ralphie's head every step of the way, describing his boyhood emotions along with observations of his mother, father, little brother Randy and his childhood friends. After a shaky start, Lishawa manages the role with sensitivity for its nuances. He becomes a strong storyteller, describing Ralphie's fantasies about the coveted BB gun and his innovative plans to acquire it. From time to time, Lishawa has a tendency to lose the emotion of the drama he's telling but, when he's on, as when he is playing a cowboy in one of Ralphie's fantasies, he's very good.

With his third-person descriptions, a whole time and place is recreated. Ralphie is seen going to school with his boyhood friends, Flick and Schwartz. Farkas, the town bully, assaults them. Esther Jane, a classmate who has a crush on Ralphie, gives him an ornate Christmas card. Flick takes on the “triple dog dare you” code and, while outside in winter's freezing cold, attempts to find out if his tongue will stick to a lamppost. Father (referred to here as “The Old Man”) wins a contest and is awarded a tacky lamp in the shape of a woman's leg, which he proudly displays in the living room window, much to Mother's dismay. Not to be outdone, Ralphie gets his much-coveted Little Orphan Annie decoder pin, which proves to be a disappointment of a different kind.

All these seamless vignettes are strung together by the teller of the tale, Ralph, working under the skilled direction of Thomas Kuhn. Overall, the cast does a good job. Laurel Ring is outstanding as the mother, who literally washes Ralphie's mouth out with soap when he utters an objectionable curse word. Ed Hunter is flustered, hearty and likeable as The Old Man. Young 9-year-old Ralphie is sympathetically played by Gary Wells. Flick and Schwartz are believable as played by Noah Cox and Aaron Goll. Little brother Randy is Nadia Cox (Xavier Ayla-Vermont plays him on Sundays). Celia Shankman plays Helen Weathers. And Kelly Belanger is Esther Jane except on Sunday when Marissa Lloyd takes the role. Victoria Gregory is attractive as Miss Shields, the children's teacher. Caroline Boudreaux plays Farkas, the town bully.

The set design for “A Christmas Story” is by Leezah Berhens. Its combination living room, kitchen, dining area, staircase with upstairs bedroom and fence outside the house seem cluttered, not allowing for easy scene changes. There isn't enough room to suggest a teacher's classroom or a family car ride. A more minimalist approach might have worked better.

All the same, Santa's mountain at the town's department store does appear magically on the stage and each child gets a turn visiting an unseen Santa. A Christmas day filled with wonders finally arrives with all kinds of surprises, none of which will be revealed here. As Ralph says in one of his closing lines, “It was a good Christmas because we had love; we had each other. And in the final accounting, that's what it's all about, after all.”

The GCP's “A Christmas Story” leaves audiences with that warm, fuzzy feeling, and a nod of recognition to a long-ago time that was and could be again for those who cherish family dreams.

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