One of my favorite holiday films is the 1983 classic, “A Christmas Story,” featuring Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, the boy who wants nothing more for Christmas than a Red Ryder Carbine Action Range Model BB Gun With This Thing That Tells Time Built Right Into The Stock and who will stop at nothing to make sure Santa and his parents (Darren McGavin; Melinda Dillon) know what’s on the top of his wish list. Ever intrepid and undaunted by the “you’ll shoot your eye out” exhortation he hears from just about everyone he knows, Ralphie is the fictionalized version of Jean Shepherd, who grew up in Hammond, Indiana, on the shores of Lake Michigan, not far from Chicago, and who became in many respects the Garrison Keillor of his time when he achieved renown as a radio personality and author.
I recently had the pleasure of directing a new stage adaptation of “A Christmas Story” at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s the current alternative to the well-worn, familiar holiday season outings with Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” – or, in the world of ballet – “The Nutcracker,” and is gaining traction at regional theatres across the country (including a new musical adaptation, complete with dancing leg lamps, which premiered at Kansas City Repertory Theatre about the same time the PTC production opened in Salt Lake). The stage adaptation is remarkably faithful to the film, which means it has numerous locales, and in cinematic lap-dissolve fashion worthy of Shakespeare himself, quick cross-cutting from one scene to the next, requiring clever, imaginative solutions of directors and designers. That would be challenging enough if the production itself didn’t rely on the talents of several young actors. After an exhaustive, months-long search which included prescreening, auditions and callbacks, I cast 11 charming and remarkable kids from the greater Salt Lake area, aged 8 to 13 – who outnumbered the adult pros almost 3 to 1 and brought a very vibrant energy to the rehearsal hall.
But for aficionados of the film, the tongue-sticking-to-the-lamppost-in-the-schoolyard scene is intact, as are the hillbilly neighbors and their “785” hound dogs, the bunny suit pink pajamas from Ralphie’s Aunt Clara, the turkey disaster, the “major award” leg lamp, and the visit to see Santa at Higbee’s Department Store where Ralphie panics, asks for a football and then desperately fights gravity, ascends Santa’s slide and tries to reverse his request while Randy, Ralphie’s younger brother, leaves an unexpected and memorable gift in Santa’s lap. It’s all there: hilarity and tenderness in abundance.
Numerous descriptions of the Midwest in winter are also peppered throughout the script. . . the bundling up as if on a deep-sea expedition, and all of Shepherd’s vivid images of childhood in 1930s Indiana during the Great Depression, a time when the only thing people didn’t lack was love.
In spite of the fact that my own father spent the latter part of his life in Des Moines, Iowa, and I visited him there often, Winona has come to signify and symbolize the Midwest for me, and many of the images that came to mind as I prepared to work on the production, researched the author, the era and the setting, collaborated with designers, cast the actors, and then rehearsed the play, came from my experiences in Winona – especially the limited but indelible time I’ve spent here in winter. (I have yet to get over the fact that the mighty Mississippi actually freezes for several months each year. . . unimaginable to a West Coaster, but too true, as you well know). It was easy to picture Ralphie, Randy, Flick, and Schwartz (with Scut Farkus, the town bully, never far behind) racing down the streets and alleys of Winona; gathering on the playgrounds and in the classrooms of any number of brick facaded elementary schools I’ve walked, driven, or biked past in the last six years; shopping for gumballs and comics; pelting and being pelted by snowballs, struggling against the wind on their way to school, bundled beyond human recognition. . . Images from my acquaintance with Winona and Winonans specifically informed my work and helped me determine what felt true in our production (a certain economy of phrase, a distinctive dry wit, an inherent toughness bred by the elements) and what rang false (gushing; over-sentimentality).
I’m pleased to tell you that the production turned out well. Sold out all of its performances (necessitating an added matinee on closing weekend) and set box office records for a non-musical production. I wish I could also tell you I had a lot to do with the production’s success. Certainly I helped guide it and in so doing, as with any play, tried my best to honor authorial intention. But it’s a great story, and at this time of year perhaps more than any other, people like gathering together in darkened spaces to listen to ancient stories and to be reminded of a time when life seemed simpler, of our common humanity, and of the love that binds us to each other – which is exactly what “A Christmas Story” ultimately does with enough warmth to diminish winter’s icy winds and the bite of hard times at least for an hour or two.
Margaret Rubin, who was a third season Front Porch Speaker at GRSF, once said to me, “You know it’s called the Heartland because it really is the land of the heart – not just because it’s the center of the country.” Working on “A Christmas Story” reminded me of that, time and time again. It’s a story, a film, and now a play that comes from the heart, the land in which we all yearn to live, however tersely, tenderly, or toughly, especially at this time of the year. I owe a healthy measure of the success of my work on “A Christmas Story” to the town I have come to think of as my second home.