Package deal: From left, the family opens some presents for Mr. Parker (Howard Swain), Ralphie Parker (Zachary Freier-Harrison), Randy Parker (Evan Coleman) and Mrs. Parker (Nancy Carlin) in San Jose Rep's 'A Christmas Story.'
Keep on Giving
Jean Shepherd's famous memories migrate to screen then stage intact in 'A Christmas Story'
By Marianne Messina
IT SEEMS that writers approach Christmas the way teens approach family gatherings, like something très not-cool, yet way unavoidable. Based on a generation-old film and story by Jean Shepherd, Philip Grecian's A Christmas Story seems as resigned as most Christmas fare to an awkward dance around the holiday's stubborn popularity. And on the San Jose Repertory Theatre stage, it comes through as an undecided dance between the sentimental and the sarcastic. The bizarro quality of Ralphie Parker (Zachary Freier-Harrison) and his family seems muted along with the cynical wit of adult Ralph (Dan Hiatt) as he narrates his childhood Christmas. The quirkiest part of the show is the Old Man's (Howard Swain) flyaway hair, which is worth a few chuckles all on its own.
The play is set in the 1940s, and all the nostalgic "simpler times of youth" are present and accounted for: the neighborhood bully and his favorite patsy, the holiday rituals and parental antics, the department-store Santa—in this production a disembodied voice within a giant snowdrift. To sit on Santa's lap, kids disappear up inside one end of the snow and slide down and out the other. Though a repetitive device makes it clear that young Ralphie seriously wants a BB gun, rather "a Red Ryder carbine-action range model air rifle," the production could have made Ralphie's desire more vivid. Still, the bit with the leg of lamp is definitely amusing, both in the lamp's ability to make the Old Man feel like a winner and the lamp as the object of an interior-decorating feud (again rendered with a light touch) between Mom (Nancy Carlin) and Dad.
Another funny thread forms around Dad's subtle efforts to throw off the chains of eternal meat loaf and cabbage. Somehow in the subdued tone, it's possible to miss the joke between the lines, as grown-up Ralph reports Dad's enthusiasm for the Christmas turkey—until the scene in which the Old Man has his meltdown. Watching Dad throw veggies, pots and utensils out the window pulls the joke together, the one about the Christmas turkey being the Old Man's only escape from meat loaf. It's a wildly funny scene, if all too brief.
A wonderful rotating set shows the front of the quaint Parker house, its bay window, front door and stoop hung with snow (designed by Robert Mark Morgan). Behind it, the tops of houses and gables glow with lighted windows. And when wheeled 180 degrees around, it displays the inside of the house. In front of the bay window, the round-backed sofa, the Oriental rug, the old curved-edge radio all create a homey holiday feeling and awareness of days gone by. It works so well that the tone has more in common with It's a Wonderful Life than with A Christmas Story. Only Swain's character Mr. Parker emerges somewhat into personhood, so perhaps the general flatness of characters is meant to duplicate the way memory reduces people to snips of scenes and lines of narration.
Ultimately, the play throws over its ruse of ironic distance and goes for the sentimental finish. Here, the Rep's light touch saves the day, making the sudden shift in tone less egregious. The Parker parents sit out on the stoop in subdued moonlight, their Christmas tree lights shining bold through the window (Lap-Chi Chu, lighting designer). At this performance, as wisps of snow gently dropped from the rooftops, sighs could be heard through the house. The show may be a bit of a sleeper, but it has its moments.
A Christmas Story, a San Jose Repertory Theatre production, plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Friday at 8pm (plus Dec. 20, 27 at 11am), Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through Dec. 20 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $25-$53. (408.367.7255)
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