News Column

RRT brings back 'A Christmas Story'

December 6, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 06--In many places, they call it the Ol' Switcheroo. Up north, it's known as the Sheboygan Shuffle. It's even been referred to as the Winthrope Swap in nomadic herds.

The cast of Robidoux Resident Theatre's production of "A Christmas Story" doesn't have a name for it, but they think it's pretty neat that Will Stuck and Richard Boehner have traded places in this year's production. Last year, Boehner reprised his role as the Old Man -- one he first took on in 2007 -- and Stuck provided the voice of grown-up Ralphie, the play's lively narrator. But this year, up is down, east is west, Boehner is the storyteller and Stuck is the Old Man.

"I'm just too old to be the Old Man," Boehner laughs.

Those audience members who set RRT's non-musical attendance record for the 2012 edition of "A Christmas Story" would tell you that Boehner excelled as Ralphie's father, who could weave a tapestry of obscenities that are still hanging in space over Lake Michigan. But when the play rolled around again this year, Boehner wanted to take a breather. He felt the role was too demanding and he'd be better suited for a narration part.

"You're running up and down stairs and throwing food. I'm 63 years old, and that's too much for me to have any air left," Boehner says.

Fortunately, Stuck had a soft spot the Old Man, who he says was his favorite character in the beloved 1983 movie on which the play is based. After auditions, it was revealed that the two men had essentially swapped characters -- and they've been working with each other every day since.

"One of the things that Dick tried to tell me was that he felt the role should have been more physical as far as the humor goes. And he felt that while he couldn't pull that off, that maybe I could," Stuck explains. "When he said that, I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn't see it. But then when you get into the role, you start to see it."

Whether he's fighting furnaces, making "Kramer-esque" entrances or pouring every ounce of energy into a jaw-dropping string of swears, Stuck says he has tried to bring more physicality to the production. He has also noted one other key difference between his performance and Boehner's.

"I feel like I come across grouchier than he did," Stuck laughs. "I didn't think I'd come across so mean."

Meanwhile, Stuck and director Tyler Messner both say that Boehner has brought a feeling of nostalgia to the role of the narrator. Boehner says he's simply trying to make the audience feel cozy and make himself sound credible -- even when he's slinging a few good-natured wisecracks.

"This guy has to carry the audience through the story. He's got to be your guide," Boehner says. "I'm just trying to get them to like me immediately and find me reasonable and comfortable to listen to."

Boehner will lead the audience through the iconic tale of Christmas in small-town Indiana in 1940. Based on stories by Jean Shepherd, young Ralphie (played in RRT's production by Nicholas Davison) has to convince his mother (Carol Myers), his teacher (Stephenie Bippes) and even Santa Claus that a Red Ryder BB gun would be the perfect Christmas gift. Along the way, he deals with bullies like Scut Farkas (Delbert Casteel), his annoying little brother Randy (John Grant), his smart-aleck pals Flick and Schwartz (Jakub Hisel and Colton Connors) and a couple of girls in his class (Hailey Meyer and Grace Ham).

As a first-time director, Messner is aiming to inject a sense of reality into this year's play. Unlike several other holiday favorites, he says, "A Christmas Story" feels more like a down-to-earth tale. And that's where the true comedy really comes from.

"Nobody has had an angel come down and show them the world without you. I'm sure there are a few people that have gone through the 'Christmas Vacation' stuff, but it's over-the-top and excessive. This is a genuine story about a kid that just wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, and everything that he goes through to get it is real-life," Messner says.

Messner says that his job has been pretty easy so far. The hardest part has been getting the cast's seven kids to project their lines. Three of them have never acted on stage before. While the kids are worried about nailing their lines, Messner is more concerned about getting them to talk loud enough so the people in the Missouri Theater's loge can hear them. Luckily, Messner says, the children have picked things up rather quickly.

"It's been surprisingly easy if I can keep them from running around and acting like hooligans," he jokes. "But once we get to work, it's great. They've been like sponges. They've got down the notes that I've given and I don't have to give a note more than once usually."

The play's actors face a bigger issue. Because the film version of "A Christmas Story" has become so popular and ingrained in pop culture, the performances of Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin and the rest of the cast have become iconic. So, RRT's actors have a balancing act on their hands; they have to replicate the film performances in some instances and they have to carve out their own unique characteristics at other points in the production.

Stuck says that of the very few complaints he received after last year's performance, one that popped up a few times was that the cast didn't deliver some of those well-known lines the same as the actors in the film did. As the Old Man, Stuck says he's submitting to Darren McGavin's greatness on a few occasions.

"So many lines that you remember from that movie are his lines, so I think it's hard to separate myself completely," Stuck says. "There has been at least one instance where I've gone to Tyler and said, 'I'm adding a word' because I liked the way Darren McGavin said it so much. ... I feel I would be doing a disservice to 'A Christmas Story' if I didn't do it that way."

Some of the other actors haven't thought about it as much. In fact, Davison, who plays the bright-eyed lead, has never even seen the movie. It doesn't matter to Messner. He says it works.

"Whenever he came into audition, he was Ralphie. He was spot-on. I mean, it was kind of like hitting the jackpot," Messner says of Davison.

There are a few minor differences between the stage and film adaptations of "A Christmas Story." RRT's version won't have a real car from the '30s or the Bumpus dogs tearing through the set. However, Ralphie does have a romance subplot in the play, and the audience will see Boehner, the narrator, on stage throughout.

It's worth noting, however, that those little discrepancies haven't stopped Joetowners from flocking to this play in the past. "A Christmas Story" has quickly become RRT's most popular annual play, and the cast hopes that it stays that way for many years to come.

"Our main goal is to make this show a Christmas tradition for St. Joe, much the way that some Kansas City theaters do 'A Christmas Carol' every year during the holidays," Boehner says. "Our patrons seem to love this show, so we're giving it to them every year and it's kind of interesting to see if this will be an every Christmas thing. I hope it is. That'd be fun! And I don't have to be in it. I'd love to just come watch it."

"A Christmas Story" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 13 and 14 and at 2 p.m. on Dec. 15 at the Missouri Theater. Tickets can be purchased for $10 to $25. For more information or to purchase tickets, call Robidoux Resident Theatre at 232-1778 or visit rrtstjoe.org.

Shea Conner can be reached at shea.conner@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.

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(c)2013 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)

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