When I read that Pittsburgh Public Theater planned to include A Christmas Story in time for the holidays as part of its 2022-23 Season, it jostled my mind. I remember seeing either the film or a staged version years ago, and I recalled its nostalgic warmth, gilded with mild comedy but most of the plot remained vague, save that a young 9-year old boy hungered for a BB gun for Christmas.
By Dave Zuchowski, a.k.a. Pittsburgh Owlscribe
Wanting to dust of the cobwebs of my mind and warm up to the Christmas season with a look back at what I remembered as a cheery experience, I headed downtown for a second look at what’s become yet another Christmas theatrical tradition.
Pittsburgh Public Theater festoons its stage with a big red ribbon and bow that hangs from the top of the stage, then around the sides suggesting a performance meant as a heartfelt Christmas gift.
The set by Tim Mackabee fits its 1940s time period to a T with its retro icebox, old stove and sink, used to wash dishes in the days before machines took over the task. Mackabee ingeniously uses lazy Susan mechanics to change to other scenes like the department store where young children let Santa know what they want for Christmas, a lot where the Parker family pick out their tree and a school room presided over by a hilarious teacher that goes by the name Miss Shields (Hope M. Anthony, who lets out all the stops and gives it all to her performance, much to the delight of the audience).
With a youthful cast of ten (if I counted right) bolstered by an exceptionally talented roster of four adults, the play has an exuberant spirit and flair. As the young Ralphie, Sebastian Madoni is astonishing in the role, considering it’s his first full production in his still burgeoning career. His Ralphie is nerdish and intelligent with tons of moxie as is just about as perfect in the part as it gets.
As his brother, Randy, Will Chambers has the sort of childlike charm that easily wins over an audience. On the other side of the personality spectrum, Eamonn McElfresh is solidly convincing in the role of the bully, Scut Farkas.
Director Michael Berresse animates the children and has them meander across the stage in very appropriate ways that conveys an infectious enthusiasm. As a group, they carry off the triple dog dare coaxing a classmate to stick his tongue on a frozen flagpole with the expected and alarming results.
As the Adult Ralph, John Shepard narrates the nostalgic look back in time to his childhood days with an aura that reminds me of the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. His honey-toned voice has the sort of calmness that makes a nice contrast to the sharper, eager voices of the young children (Colin Bozick, Suraya Love Collins, Zora Rose, Charlie Julian Stull, Jude Ziggy Glover, Adjoa Opoku-Dakwa and Nikolai Zevchak).
As Mother, Jamie Agnello is a harried matriarch, constantly busy with getting the children up for school, making breakfast, consoling her beleaguered husband and acting like a typical mother of her era.
Watch for the hilarious scene when she and her husband, labeled The Old Man in the script, battle over a fishnet leg lamp he wins as an award in one of the many contests he obsessively enters. They enter and exit the living room much in the manner of a French farce with her turning off the lamp she dislikes, while he subsequently turns it on when she’s gone. This innocent skirmish goers on for what seems like five minutes, and it only gets better and more comical as the skit continues.
Tim McGeever is stupendously comic as the put upon father, fending of his neighbor’s dogs as he walks up the sidewalk to his house, battling the furnace that sometimes erupts like a smoking volcano in the kitchen and playing Dad to two young boisterous boys.
A Christmas Story at Pittsburgh Public Theater – Gripes
One of my gripes with playwright Philip Grecian’s script is his overuse of mention of the desired BB gun, a long phrase that goes as follows; a Red Ryder carbine-action 200 Shot Range Model air rifle with a stock that comes with a compass and sundial. I lost count after several people in the cast drop the lengthy ine verbatim time and again ad nauseam. As William Blake once said “In order to know what is enough, you have to first know what is too much.” Now I know what is too much, thanks to Grecian’s script.
In retrospect, I must admit I went into the theater expecting seasonal magic based on my initial experience with the play. While it failed to fully materialize, I was glad to settle for a well conceived and polished performance that thematically rings in the Christmas season. Judging by the fact that the run has been extended beyond its original close on December 18 to December 23, word of mouth seems to have had a positive effect on ticket sales and demand.
A Christmas Story, a production of Pittsburgh Public Theater, is at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh. Phone 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org.
About the Author
Dave Zuchowski, aka Pittsburgh Owlscribe, has been writing about theater and doing theater reviews for more than three decades. His reviews have appeared in the Greensburg Tribune-Review (now the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review), the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Erie Times, the New Castle News, In Pittsburgh, and The Chautauquan Daily.