The Pittsburgh Public Theater – or, as artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski likes to say, your Pittsburgh Public Theater – has a couple of bright shiny gifts for the community this holiday season.
The first comes all wrapped in a bow and offers little in the way of surprise for most people, but much in the way of comforting nostalgia. I’m talking about the stage version of A Christmas Story, that chestnut of a film that’s been staple-viewing for those who celebrate Christmas – and a cultural point of reference even for those who don’t – since it first came out in 1983.
If you’ve never seen the film, or haven’t seen it in a while: it’s the one about a boy named Ralphie who desperately wants an “official Red Ryder Carbine action, 200 shot, range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built right into the stock” for Christmas. A request to which all adults everywhere have the same response: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
Philip Grecian’s script (written in 2000) hews closely to the film’s story: if you’re jones-ing for the frozen-tongue-on-a-lamppost, the Christmas tree haggle, and the battle over the leg lamp, he’s got you covered. The production, under Michael Berresse’s tight choreographic direction, captures the delicate balance of nostalgia and cynicism with which the narrator – adult Ralph (John Shepard) – looks back on his childhood, and, in particular, on his parents. Tim McGeever plays the hapless Old Man who is in constant war with both the next-door neighbor’s dogs and a malfunctioning furnace, and who has a flair for inventing curse words. Jamie Agnello is the long-suffering Mother who has untapped intellectual potential and whose talents are wasted cooking meatloaf five nights a week. As parents tend to do, both loom large in Ralph’s memory, and McGeever and Agnello finesse the tricky task of embodying the comic dimensions they assume in his remembrance while also letting us see the adult motivations and experiences that would have been invisible to him as a child. They’re also really fantastic in a couple of bravura comic lazzis that showcase the lengths married couples will go to avoid direct confrontation.
Sebastian Madoni brings a talent for physical comedy and a knack for comic timing to the role of young Ralphie Parker, and he’s joined in the “kid’s world” of the play by nine other fine young talents: Colin Bozick (who gets consistent laughs as Flick, with his complaint about his sore arm), Will Chambers (Randy), Suraya Love Collins (Ester Jane Alberry), Eamonn McElfresh (taking delight as the bully Scut Farkas), Zora Rose (Helen Weathers), Charlie Julian Still (Schwartz), and Jude Ziggy Glover, Adjoa Opoku-Dakwa, and Nikolai Zevchak (Ensemble).
The scenic design by Tim Mackabee appears, at first glance, like a reboot of the set for the PPT’s recent production of Raisin in the Sun, but have faith in that big proscenium bow: there are hidden gifts in store! Among those is a fabulous department store “Santa House,” complete with a tube slide. Moreover, at many moments the production shifts into scenes of fantasy, as when, for example, Ralphie imagines how owning a BB gun might allow him to save his family from bandits. Playful and cheeky sound, projection, and lighting design (Sartje Pickett, Bryce C. Cutler, and Robert Aguilar) elevate these sequences into a quasi-cinematic realm and remind us that this production, like the film, refuses to take itself too seriously. A highlight comes when Ralphie daydreams the rapturous reception that his “theme” about the air rifle might receive from his teacher, Miss Shields (Hope M. Anthony): a sweep of romantic violin music and a firework display of “A+’s” culminate in a tableau that figures Ralphie as a mini-Shakespeare (the excellent costuming is by Venise St. Pierre).
The nudge-nudge wink-wink fun of the production even extends into the audience; on opening night, there were costumes on our side of the proscenium as well, including at least one person in pink bunny footie pajamas. That’s all to say: if you are so inclined, it’s likely you will not be alone if you attend in festive attire.
But there is more to celebrate than just the holidays at the PPT! The second gift, announced on the opening night of A Christmas Story, is a new initiative: “Theater for All.” The PPT is embracing radical hospitality to offer a raft of free tickets to each of its productions, beginning in January of 2023. About a month before each opening, free tickets will be available on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone in the community. More details available here.