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Covedale Captures the Magic and Nostalgia of “A Christmas Story”

Review by Doug Iden of A Christmas Story: Covedale Theatre

The day after Thanksgiving, I dust off my collection of holiday movies to initiate the season.  One of the treasures is the beloved A Christmas Story, written by humorist Jean Shepherd, based upon his semi-autobiographical novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”, a story of a youngster and his family growing up in a middle class-town in the Northwestern Indiana/Chicago area.  Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I attended the opening of the play A Christmas Story at the Covedale Center. (I had seen a musical version of this play last year in the Broadway Series and was not enamored.)

It is risky to produce a play based upon this iconic film. The key is capturing the charm, the whimsy, the humor and the unapologetic nostalgia with which Shephard imbues the story.  I’m happy to say that the Covedale production met that expectation which was readily apparent by the audience’s receptivity. The larger than typical opening crowd was clearly enchanted with the performance with a lot of laughing, winking recognition of plot points and a penchant for finishing certain lines of the play encouraged by Narrator Chris Bishop.

The structure of the play is episodic, depicting a series of incidents (disasters) leading up to Christmas morning.  Many of these scenes have become the fabric of the holiday season including the purchasing of a Christmas tree, the tongue frozen to a flagpole, the flat tire sequence, the visit to see Santa, Father (Tommy Boeing) displaying an atrocious lamp in the window and Ralphie’s insatiable desire to get a genuine Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Air Rifle.  The show is also replete with catchphrases such as the “triple dog dare” and the oft-repeated warning “You’ll shoot your eye out”.

As in the movie, the play is narrated by an adult Ralphie (Bishop) who reminisces about a holiday time years ago in the 1940’s. The difference is that, in the movie, the narration is done as a voice over while, in the play, we see the Narrator throughout the show, mostly as a commentator but, occasionally, interacting with the other actors.  The narration is critical because a lot of the humor, the charm and the gentle social commentary is told through this character.  Despite flubbing a few lines, Bishop is warm, charming, engaging and charismatic.

The interplay between Father (Boeing) and Mother (Nicole Capobianco) is a key element.  Boeing portrays Father Ralph as a gruff, boisterous, somewhat incompetent but loving husband and father.  Capobianco plays Mother as a doting but long-suffering woman who deals with her mercurial husband, little money, and the raising of a recalcitrant Randy (Henry Charles Weghorst) and the precocious Ralphie (Eric Schaumloffel).  The highlight is the “fight” (almost a dance) between Mother and Father as they attempt to turn on or off the woman’s-leg lamp which Father won in a contest.  Mother ultimately wins the contest when she “accidently” breaks the hideous lamp.

Ralphie, his brother and his friends Flick (Peter Waring) and Schwartz (Noah Jeffreys) are constantly harassed by classmate Scut Farcus (Mitchell Wolking) as the boys walk to and from school.  Ultimately, Ralphie is pushed too hard by Farcus and earns his revenge.

There are also two female classmates (Helen played by Clare Graff and Esther Jane (Ruthie Darnell)) who play significant roles. Esther Jane, who has been added to the story, has a puppy love crush on Ralphie who, mostly, is oblivious to Esther’s interest.  The added possibly impending romance is an interesting touch.  Darnel plays Esther as a person trying to befriend Ralphie and adds a sweet touch to her pursuit.  All of the youngsters in the show are good although many are actually older than the characters they are portraying.  Some highlights include Ralphie’s daydreams about his use of the air rifle as he saves the day against bad guys.  These scenes usually include the other youngsters as well.  A lot of the credit for melding these elements with the adult story goes to Director Tim Perrino.

The set design and props are intricate and marvelous. Brett Bowling created a static background set which represents the kitchen, living room and upstairs bedroom of the Parker family.  The set addresses the family’s modest financial situation with a somewhat shabby interior but also represents the age with 1940’s refrigerators, stoves and console radios.  The interior house set is on a platform to differentiate from outside activities such as the schoolroom, Goldblatt’s Department Store (there really were Goldblatt’s stores), Ralphie’s harassment by Farcus, etc.  The moveable props include a very elaborate seat for Santa atop presents with the slide for the kids when they are through, a dilapidated car, the storied flagpole, the Christmas tree lot and a blackboard for the school which substitutes as a wild west daydream of Ralphie’s.

Lighting and sound effects designed by Richard Zenk are also instrumental.  There are numerous sound effects including the “heathen” dogs from next door, icy wind, the car, sirens and background Christmas music.  One of the best examples is the combination of acting, lighting and sound when Ralphie opens his last present which received a lot of laughs.  The costumes (Caren Brady) are typical of the era but also channels the movie, especially the hat worn by Scut Farcus.

If you too yearn for a Red Ryder air rifle and would like to spend some with the quirky, somewhat eccentric but loving Parker family and friends, see A Christmas Storyplaying at the Covedale Center through December 23.