Actors Theatre’s ‘A Christmas Story’: “bundled-up” with sincerity and hilarity

Ralphie is mortified while 'the old man' holds back a chuckle.

Young Ralphie Parker’s hapless, hilarious Christmas-quest for a ‘Red Ryder BB Gun’ has returned to Actors Theatre of Louisville and the charm is as effortless as ever. From the highly formalized etiquette of the “triple-dog-dare” to the notorious ‘F-bomb’ heard-round-the-midwest, ‘A Christmas Story’ continues to validate its modern-day-classic status as calamity and compassion combine amidst the pitfalls, fleeting triumph and exasperated disbelief of childhood and adulthood alike. With their third annual production of the Philip Grecian adaptation of the 1983 film, Actors has managed to preserve all the nostalgia, laughs and relatability of this treasured tale, while capitalizing on the talents of a stellar cast to ensure the material is as boisterously over-the-top as ever, and thankfully, still just as refreshing in its complete lack of cynicism.

‘A Christmas Story’ follows the exploits of the Parker family as they stumble through family tradition and the holiday season in 1950s Indiana. Ralphie (local youth Henry Miller) finds time for day-dreaming about the best Christmas present ever (the aforementioned BB gun) while bundling-up against the oppressive midwestern winter, fleeing from school bully Scut Farkas (Carter Caldwell) and looking after little brother Randy (Gabe Weible). Actors veteran Justin R. G. Holcomb plays Ralphie’s father, aka “the old man”, who salivates in anticipation for the upcoming Christmas turkey, does frequent battle with the family’s ailing furnace and struggles to find the briefest moments of intimacy with his wife (Centre College Graduate Jessie Wortham). Those familiar with the original film will remember that much of the story is narrated in nostalgic hindsight by Ralphie’s adult self, and that role is here embodied by actor Larry Bull, who additionally appears on-stage amongst his childhood memories and even interacts with young Ralphie during certain daydream segments.

L to R: Justin Holcomb, Henry Miller, Jessica Wortham and Gabe Weible

The classic nature of the story at hand is undeniable but it’s the excellent cast Actors has assembled that makes this production in particular well worth the investment, from which the on-stage couple portrayed by Justin Holcomb and Jessica Wortham are significant standouts. Holcomb returns to the role from last year’s outing and his effortless dismay as a father that struggles to find triumph in write-in trivia contests and victory over rebellious household appliances is both hilarious and enthralling. There are moments of interaction between Holcomb and Wortham, especially during a handful of notable fantasy sequences bringing life to Ralphie’s ample imagination, where the pair work in tandem, Holcomb with his wild eyes and disheveled hair, and Wortham with sweeping gestures and facial expression reminiscent of SNL’s Kristen Wiig, to cultivate some truly palpable physical comedy. The children fair just as effectively, benefitting from a script which equips them with a number of run-on gags, and actress Katie Blackerby is also noteworthy as Ralphie’s oft-frustrated teacher Miss Sheilds.

The elder Ralphie (Larry Bull) shows off the infamous rifle.

If there’s one complaint to be found in ‘A Christmas Story’ it’s that it’s over too quickly, or more specifically, that after a first act which delightfully meanders from one train-wreck of a hallmark moment to the next, that the second feels a bit rushed by the the litany of obligatory events leading to the finale. That’s not to say that there is ever a significant drop in moment-to-moment enjoyment, and all told this is a fundamentally entertaining production that will captivate audiences of all ages. The role of the Christmas elves from the movie has been conveniently expanded here to include general comic relief, a couple of impromptu dance sequences and a general flurry of moving things on and off the set as needed and always with an endearing franticness that would do ‘The Peanuts’ justice.

The elves dripping with Christmas cheer.

Director Drew Fracher and his entire team at Actors Theatre are to be commended for crafting an experience that is just as accessible, relatable, and fundamentally entertaining as the property from which it is based, and perhaps even more so with the added intimacy of the live performance and some excellently timed comedy. ‘A Christmas Story’ endures as a tale that uses the pains of childhood as a common denominator for its audiences and yet never disrespects either the younger or older in the process. Continuing through November 27th at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, this is a show that throws an exceedingly wide net, sure to wow non-theatre goers and the regulars alike, as well as a huge crossection of ages, from the youngest among us to just the youngest at heart.

Even more information, including showtimes and tickets, is available via Actorswebsite. The impressive holiday schedule at Actors continues in December with ‘A Christmas Carol’ and into the new year with ‘The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity’, which tells the story of a politically incorrect professional wrestler.

More articles by me here.

Chris Ritter <<<<<< <<<<<<