If you go
What: “A Christmas Story”
Where: Civic Theatre, Arts United Center, 303 E. Main St.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, 10, 16 and 17; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, 11 and 18
Admission: Tickets, from $16 to $24, are available by calling 424-5220
Jason Collins could probably say it in his sleep, which is just as well seeing as Ralphie Parker undoubtedly dreamed it.
“A legendary official Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle with a compass and this thing which tells time built right into the stock,” Jason said repeatedly at a breakneck pace for the reporter’s amusement.
“If I don’t say that 20 times (throughout the play), I’d be surprised,” he said.
Jason, 12, portrays Ralphie in the Civic Theatre production of the movie, “A Christmas Story,” opening Saturday.
Both movie and play are ostensibly about Ralphie’s quest to obtain said weapon as a Christmas gift.
But one of the reasons this autobiographical tale, told in myriad ways by the late author and radio personality Jean Shepherd throughout his lifetime, continues to resonate with so many people is that it explores universal truths about what it means to be a kid.
A unique challenge of adapting a popular movie to the stage is that almost everyone who walks through the door of the theater will have a concrete idea of how the sets should look and the characters should be played.
Jason, a student at Canterbury School, said the actors and the set-builders – by design and by necessity – had to put their own spin on the material, but the overall effect should be the opposite of jarring.
“The whole play is a little bit different, but I think we do capture what (patrons) think of when they picture it,” he said.
Justin Herber plays the adult Ralphie, a character that appeared only in voice-over form in the film.
Shepherd provided that narration, which is akin to Leonardo da Vinci having provided the brush strokes.
It’s a lot to live up to, in other words.
“The challenge is to find that balance between what people expect to hear and being your own person,” Herber said.
“You don’t want people walking away thinking, ‘That’s not how it goes.’ ”
Unlike Shepherd, Herber gets to stroll around in his own story – unseen by the characters but in full view of the audience.
“I am constantly there,” he said. “All these people are in my world.”
Because the audience gets to see the adult Ralphie, as well as hear him, Herber is able to act the role rather than just intone it.
“There’s a new element in that the audience can see my facial expressions,” he said. “I feel like I get to do more than Jean got to do. I get to tell the story with my eyes.”
And Nol Beckley as The Old Man gets to tell the story with his swear words.
Of course, anyone familiar with the movie knows that those “swear words” are absurd facsimiles of cursing invented by Shepherd.
Beckley said his new favorite word is the presumed adjective “malaforpin.”
“He says it right before the lamp breaks,” Beckley said.
As assayed by Darren McGavin in the film, Ralphie’s father (aka “The Old Man”) is an amusing font of comic rage and ingratiating grandiosity.
Beckley said the director of the Civic show, Rosy Ridenour, helped him learn how to be angry without seeming too angry.
“She has told me to tone it down when I speak to the kids,” he said. “I don’t want to scare the crap out of them.”
Beckley, a Northrop High School teacher, said “A Christmas Story” is only his fourth play as an actor and that prospect does scare the crap out of him.
But The Old Man is well within his comfort zone.
“This is a loud, over-the-top character,” he said. “He’s fun to play. It’s all eyes and hand gestures.”
Beckley said he wants to portray The Old Man is such a way that people who recognize him on the street thereafter recall the show warmly.
Both Beckley and Jason praise the period exactitude of the props, including a vintage refrigerator with a giant motor on top (the official way to refer to a fridge like this is to call it a “monitor top”).
The furnace and the Bumpus Hounds with which The Old Man does battle, however, are implied rather than seen, Beckley said.