Perhaps the most important thing to know about Asheville Community Theatre’s performance of A Christmas Story is that there is not a Saturday evening performance. Learn from this reviewer’s mistake. If you’re looking for an evening show, those are Thursday and Friday, Dec. 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. Showtime is 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 11 and 12.
The second thing to know: The child actors in this production (and there are nine) are good. And not just in an “awww, that’s cute” way. They’re good actors who are fun and engaging to watch.
The play, based on the 1983 comedy film (based on the short stories of late radio and TV personality Jean Shepherd), is set in Indiana during the 1940s. (In case you’re not familiar, 9 year-old Ralphie Parker wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas and embarks on an elaborate campaign to convince his parents to buy said gun, despite the fact that everyone insists, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”) ACT’s set — the inside of a two story house, complete with kitchen, living room and Ralphie’s bedroom perched atop a flight of working stairs — is wonderfully-made. Period touches, from old-school appliances to costumes, add to the feel. The story is narrated by Jeff Catanese (as both adult Ralphie, reminiscing about this particular Christmas, and the Red Ryder who is Ralphie’s here) and he becomes not just the teller of the tale but an important character.
The star of the play is Will Casse in the role of Ralphie, a role he handles with such professionalism that, were he not playing a 9 year-old, it would be easy to forget that he’s a sixth grader. He delivers his lines flawlessly (including the oft-repeated tongue-twister of an ad for the BB gun: “an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass and this thing which tells time built into the stock”) but also expresses joy, dismay, frustration, horror, fear, anger and angst through skillful body language and physical humor.
Zoe Artemisia Vickers, who plays Ralphie’s kid brother Randy, steals many a scene with well-timed kid antics (and the repeated and always timely line, I gotta go wee wee!”). It’s Vickers who reigns in the somewhat rambling first scene by completely coating herself in oatmeal at the breakfast table.
While all the kids do a stellar job with their roles, Audrey Arthur and the bully-scaring Ruth and Tony Bird as beleaguered best friend Flick are especially memorable characters.
Though the pursuit of the BB gun is the point of A Christmas Story, what makes the tale so delightful is the mundane goings on among Ralphie’s family and classmates — a pottymouthed father (Stephen Dougherty, in that role, has some wonderfully creative and kid-appropriate swears: “frizzle frazzle,” “who the halelujah”), a bully who makes smaller kids say, “I’m a dirty chicken,” a class crush and the daily grind. It’s meatloaf and red cabbage for dinner each night at the Parker house; the neighbor’s dogs are always at Mr. Parker’s heels and there’s a steady stream of contests for the hopeful adults to enter. The cast taps into the charm of these pedestrian events, turning classic scenes like Flick licking the lamp post and Mr. Parker winning the leg lamp into something fresh and fun.
And, even though this script is well-known to most of the audience, there are still some surprises. The handling of Ralphie’s visit to Santa is especially well done. Santa is never seen, but is only a booming voice from off-stage. I won’t give away the great set-piece which makes this work, but Vickers — over excited and with a full bladder — really hits her stride here. There are also three fantastic scenes out of Ralphie’s imagination — a standoff against villains, a safari, and class teacher Miss Shields (Sandra Epperson) turning into a witch — which, thanks to wonderful costumes and some over-the-top drama, keep the play fresh and fun.
A Christmas Story does run a bit long — about 2 1/2 hours including messages before the play’s start and an intermission — but the children in the audience seemed entertained throughout. And it is most definitely family-friendly.
A Christmas Story, adapted by Phillip Grecian from work by Jean Shepherd. Present by Asheville Community Theatre. Directed by Susan Dillard with assistant director Cary Nichols.
Crew Stage manager: Ashleigh Millett. Scenic designer: Bess Park. Costume designer: Deborah R. Austin. Lighting design: Jason Williams. Properties design: Rhiannon King. Assistant stage managers: Maggie Harvin, Jill Fine. Light board operator: Gabe and Catherine Gibson. Sound board operator: Cal Cooper. Follow spot operator: Cordell Nichols. Running crew: Noah Tanner. Stitchers: Joe Bell, Wendy Bell, Mary Beth Bird, Rachel Gordon, Renee Handley. Build/paint crew: Steven Boyer, Adam Cohen, Jill Fine, Maggie Hagen, Walt Heinrich, Sara LeDonne, Susan Maley, Ruth Planey, Tom Webb, Colvin Wellborn, Kristen Whitbeck.
Cast Ralph (adult): Jeff Catanese. Ralphie (child): Will Casse. Mother: Jen Russ. The Old Man: Stephen Dougherty. Randy: Zoe Vickers. Miss Shields: Sandra Epperson. Flick: Tony Bird. Schwartz: Reuben Hauser. Esther Jane Alberry: Lilly Donaldson. Helen Weathers: Audrey Arthur. Scut Farkas: Grant Hipps. Woody: Gabriel Nicholson. Ruth: Emma Grace Moon.
Shows Thursday and Friday, Dec. 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 11 and 12 at 2:30 p.m. $12/$19/$22. 254-1320 or ashevilletheatre.org.