| David Reece, Carter Dawes, Sam Ruder, and Patti Speight|
Photo by by Nicole Mae Photography
By Tina Arth
It seems like everybody is familiar with the 1983 “instant classic” version of A Christmas Story, and 2012’s A Christmas Story – The Musical can be found on stages all around the country. Often overlooked in all of this rush to holiday nostalgia is Philip Grecian’s utterly charming 2000 play version, but Theatre In the Grove is doing a great job of addressing this slight with their current offering. The play is small, intimate, and just loaded with both comedy and real heart - a perfect way for families old and young to spend a few hours getting into the spirit of the season.
Like the larger and flashier movie and musical, the straight play explores the magic and peril of getting what we want, primarily through the tale of young Ralphie’s obsessive pursuit of the perfect Christmas present, a Red Ryder BB Gun, in the face of relentless opposition. Everyone in his life – his parents, teacher, friends, even Santa Claus is sure that he’ll shoot his eye out (which, naturally, he very nearly does). Ralphie’s quest is echoed by his father’s addiction to entering contests, including the one where he finally wins a hideous lamp (we’ve all seen it – the leg with mesh stockings disappearing into a fringed antique shade). Because the tale is being told through the eyes and memories of adult Ralph, everything we see is colored by the mists of a past recollected. Was the lamp really that hideous? Was little brother Randy really that pathetic (and more important, did he really wet himself while sitting on Santa’s lap?) Did the Old Man really swear constantly, and did Mother manage to overlook it while stuffing a bar of Lifebuoy soap into Ralphie’s mouth for uttering, just once, the “F” word? In the end, we are sure only that Ralph’s most enduring memories are of the warmth, understanding, and love of family and good friends.
While I saw a number of fine performances, the team of adult Ralph (Travis Schlegel) and Ralphie (Sam Ruder) fill their respective roles with real distinction, constantly passing from Ralph’s narration to Ralphie’s action. At first I had a hard time seeing them as the same person, but Schlegel gradually grows more childlike as the show progresses, and by the end he is every bit as much a kid as his much younger alter ego. Ruder is developing into quite a comic – his turn as a pathetic victim of Lifebuoy poisoning is particularly funny.
Patti Speight and David Reece (as Mother and the Old Man) face the challenge of portraying characters as they are in Ralph’s constantly evolving memories. Just like with real parents, they are sometimes harsh, rigid authoritarians and at other times surprisingly understanding allies, but every word and emotion has to be filtered through the lens of Ralph’s recollection. Reed does an amazing job of delivering the faux curses that lace the script – not a single dirty word is uttered onstage, but the range of homonyms is hilariously imaginative. Young stage veteran Carter Dawes (as little brother Randy) demands special mention, not only for his skill at portraying a truly screwed up little kid but for his courage in constantly crying out in front of a theater full of strangers that he “has to go wee-wee.”
Director/set designer Ron Hansen and set dresser Samantha Swindler have just the right touches in the set. The necessary 1940’s ambience is nicely captured with dreary colors, an old radio, and a period kitchen that could have been in any working class Forest Grove household of the era.
This version of A Christmas Story is a lot of fun for adults and kids, and will make a great holiday theater outing for local families and those of us who just like remembering how Christmas used to be in the good old days before the advent of the internet, cell phones, video games and a host of other modern marvels.
A Christmas Story is playing at Theatre in the Grove, 2028 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove through December 18th,with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.