The decision by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis to mount A Christmas Story this month is a no-brainer. Based on the charming 1983 feature film that draws on writer Jean Shepherd's aggregate of memories about growing up in northern Indiana in the 1940s — and especially on one boy's relentless pursuit of a BB gun for Christmas — the play arrives with a built-in audience. This stage adaptation should do well at the box office, and we wish the production well. At the same time, a warning: Any similarity between the joyously anarchic spirit of the original motion picture and this stolid stage adaptation is strictly coincidental.
The script by Philip Grecian assumes that the viewer already knows letter and verse the episodic plot about Ralphie, his younger brother Randy and his long-suffering parents. Those who have memorized the film are expected to fill in many of the key visual treats that are nigh impossible to re-create onstage. But if you've not seen the film (and on opening night I was taken aback to learn how many audience members had not), lotsa luck: As often as not, you won't see the story play out before your eyes; rather, it will be described to you.
One of the film's unique delights is its ongoing voiceover narration, which is wittily, acerbically and lovingly delivered by Shepherd himself. The voiceover always underscores and enhances the visuals onscreen. But the play is dominated by an onstage narrator — the adult Ralph — who smothers the very story he's supposed to be telling. As directed by John McCluggage and overacted by Jeff Talbott, Ralph feels the need to underscore every adjective; he tries to out-act everyone else onstage. Instead of underscoring or enhancing the action, he tries to become the action. In Act One the intrusion of the adult Ralph is merely misconceived, but by the end of Act Two he has become oppressive. Don't be surprised if you find yourself wanting to take that air rifle and club Ralph over the head with it — anything to shut him up.
So here you have the essential difference between A Christmas Story on screen and stage: The movie is so refreshing that you don't want it to end, but this play can't be over soon enough.
Holiday gift giving is also much on the minds of the young protagonists in An O. Henry Christmas at Avalon Theatre Company. But it's the anti-Christmas Story. As bestowed by O. Henry, the presents in this modest musical are not simply packages: They are emblems of love, generosity and sacrifice.
The evening comprises two one-act musicals, both written by Peter Ekstrom and based on short stories penned a century ago by the admired storyteller William Sydney Porter, alias O. Henry. The first, "The Gift of the Magi," is adapted from one of Porter's most enduring tales, first published in the 1905 Christmas edition of New York's Sunday World. It tells the story of Della and Jim (Leah Berry, Stephen Rich), a young married couple living in a shabby furnished flat. There's barely money to pay the rent; Christmas gifts are an extravagance beyond reach. How they manage to reach their goals leads to the story's trick ending and its reason for being ("they are the magi"). As with A Christmas Story, I figured viewers would already know this familiar plot. Wrong again. How satisfying it was to learn that such a timeworn tale can still claim new fans.
At 35 minutes "The Gift of the Magi," is a two-character chamber piece, a curtain raiser. The bulk of the evening is consumed by "The Last Leaf," a darker, more nuanced drama about two young artists (Leah Berry, Jennifer M. Theby) who share a Greenwich Village apartment. When pneumonia strikes one of the two women, it is left to a gregarious painter (Jerry Vogel) to figure out how to save her life. Although the action is mostly set during a bitter winter, Christmas as such does not factor into the telling — yet this might be the story that most merits seeing during the holidays. With nary a present in sight or mind, the humbling message at the heart of "The Last Leaf" gently reminds us to keep the holiday season in healthy perspective.