-- "What do you want for Christmas?"
-- "..a legendary official Red Ryder 200-shot carbine action range model air rifle with a compass and this thing which tells time built into the stock."
-- "You'll shoot your eye out!"
These lines are repeated frequently in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's delightful production of Jean Shepherd's "A Christmas Story" adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian, and brought to life under Geoffrey Sherman's clever direction by a company of professional actors and local students recruited from many Montgomery schools.
Anyone who has seen the television movie version -- and there were plenty in the audience for its sold out opening performance -- anticipates this dialogue and many of the signal moments in the life of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker: his imaginative adventures as a cowboy, his school friends and the local bully, the friend who gets his tongue stuck to an icy lamppost, the delivery of a leg lamp, an outrageous pink bunny pajama set, the unchanging meat-loaf and red cabbage dinner, and numerous exploits and anticipation on the way to Christmas morning's opening of presents.
And we see all of this through the lens of the grown up Ralphie reminiscing on his childhood in Depression Era Indiana, as he vividly conjurs his family, friends, teachers, and local characters for us to see...but more on this later.
The young student ensemble is top notch: from Hailey Covington's unnerving depiction of Helen -- the science wiz who can also fight like a boy; to MaryKathryn Samelson as Ralphie's younger brother Randy who always "has to go wee-wee" and hides in the most unlikely places; to Jackson Massey's bully, Scut Farcas, who gets his comeuppance in right good fashion; to Riley Segars' portrayal of Flick -- the bully's victim; to Claudia Hubbard's always patient Esther Jane, and to Schwartz [Nathan Looney], Sarah [Helen Taylor], and Bob [Matthew Sailors] who participate fully in each scene.
But attention must be paid to Seth Meriwether as Ralphie. No stranger to the ASF stage [he has appeared in "A Christmas Carol: the Musical", and made a significant impression in both "Over the Tavern" and "Richard III"], this young actor is in the process of mastering a comic technique and complex characterizations and already exhibits a high degree of proficiency and maturity. -- In "A Christmas Story", he is so natural in the role, and such a likeable personality, that we are continually engaged in his dilemmas and cheer him on to success.
The adults in Ralphie's life -- his Mother [Sandy York], his Father, the "old man" [Bryant Mason], and his teacher, Miss Shields [Jennifer Lyon] -- are more than cut-out versions of adults that children often perceive. Yes, they do have their foibles and peculiarities, yet: Ms. York is so unassuming in the role of the Mother, that we are delighted when she can supply answers to the trivia her husband is attempting to discover, and admire her ability to be the real strength in the family; Ms. Lyon's magical portrayal of the ever-optimistic teacher is a scene-stealer; and Mr. Mason's pompous "old man" with his "catalogue of invective...and...lexicon of curses" belies his compassionate treatment of his wife and children.
In a tour de force performance as the narrator -- Ralphie's grown-up self who can "triple-dog-dare you" to not love this show --Rodney Clark pulls out all the stops as the lively and masterful storyteller, a man who realizes the impact his childhood experiences had on him, an understanding of the adults who molded him with their love, an ability to see both the serious and the comic in life's everyday occurrences, and an actor's flexibility in developing each of these parts so completely and believably.
Thanks to Shepherd's [and Grecian's] wonderfully descriptive and insightful and imaginative dialogue, to a design team that provide the illusion of a nostalgic past, and to Sherman's sense of the comic proportion of this story, the stellar performances usher in a delightful Christmas season in Montgomery.