In 1983, a little movie based on semi-fictional incidents in books by Hoosier author Jean Shepherd was released.
Titled “A Christmas Story,” it came into the film world without too much notice and remained that way until 1997 when the Turner Broadcasting System opted to fill Christmas Eve/Day with marathon reruns on its TV channels.
The resurrection — and increased popularity — of this family-based film has not only continued to this day but has expanded to include theatrical versions — with and without music.
The non–musical version opened a four-weekend run Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Auditorium.
The production, directed by Bill Heimann and featuring a bravura performance by Art Kopec and a gaggle of kids, is unfortunately less than smooth, especially in the technical department.
Turning a film (or book) that segues from reality to fantasy as the older son dreams of himself as the hero in a variety of situations, always accompanied by his longed-for Christmas present — “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model with a compass in the stock and ‘this thing which tells time’ (a sundial)” — is no easy task.
Ralphie (Jack Elliott) is nothing if not creative in the pursuit of his dream gift. He is, however, thwarted at every turn and haunted by the universal warning “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
Kopec is Ralph or Ralphie as an adult. He has the Herculean task of narrating the entire tale. After a shaky start with a bombastically shotgun delivery, he settles in and down to a persona that never seems out of place no matter the hectic proceedings. He is a solid presence that weaves each incident, real or imagined, together with the warmth of a memory softened with the passage of time.
Ralphie’s dad, The Old Man (Don Elliott), remains way over the top, so that when his “Major Award” arrives his exuberance is only slightly above his daily decibel level. In contrast, his Mother (Alexandria Cooper) is so low key as to be mostly a whisper. Their on-again/off-again battle with the leg lamp is a humorous twist.
The schoolmates of Ralphie and his younger brother Randy (John Potts) are almost consistently too soft and too fast vocally, always a problem for young actors, which could be at least partially remedied by having them face a bit to the audience and slow down.
Brayden Goddard and Zac Richardson as Ralphie’s best friends Flick and Schwartz, respectively, are happily audible as is Blake Allison as the school bully Scut Farkas who gets his well-deserved comeuppance when Ralphie finally snaps.
The set, which centers around the Parker home, extends to both side of the large (and I have to say cumbersome) stage, allowing Ralphie’s fantasies to be played in front of the house. The works well until the school classroom appears, with a large desk for the teacher, Miss Shields (Shelly Overgaard). Bringing the desk on and off, which happens at least twice, should stop the show, but not for the usual show-stopping reasons. It is so loud everything else is drowned out, including Kopec‘s continuing dialogue.
There goes whatever mood has been achieved.
Cannot believe this only happened at the performance we attended which begs the question, why did the director do nothing to silence the thundering desk? As with the too-abrupt starts and stops of the intermittent music, these are fixable problems that should not have seen opening night.
It is never entertaining to see hard-working actors undermined by sloppy technical work.
“A CHRISTMAS STORY” plays through Dec. 23 in the SBCT Wilson Auditorium, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For information and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit sbct.org.