STONEHAM -- The 1983 film "A Christmas Story" occupies the cheerful space between a holiday classic and a cult favorite. When Phil ip Grecian created the stage version in 2000, the story of Ralphie's Christmas quest for a Red Ryder air rifle began to provide some much-needed variety in the assortment of holiday shows.
But this year's Stoneham Theatre production has a surprising lack of warmth. It's not enough to plop a great story on the stage and bank on the pre-existing familiarity of touching scenarios. A healthy infusion of sincerity and earnestness would go a long way. Much of the ensemble is reaching for a laugh rather than telling what is truly a kindhearted story.
The original material for "A Christmas Story" is from writer and radio personality Jean Shepherd's recollections of his Indiana childhood. Grecian's adaptation is consistent with the film version, with a sprinkling of character enhancements. Mark S. Cartier plays the adult Ralph, looking back at a particular holiday season replete with family, wishes, and love.
All Ralph's lines were presented as voiceover in the film. Onstage, the character turns into a narrator, directly addressing the audience.
Turning voiceover into live narration poses an inherent challenge. The audience can't always track young and old Ralph's actions at the same time. The result is a fair amount of head turning and split focus.
The children outnumber the adults in this production, which can be a risky proposition, but director Jack Neary elicits some impressive performances from the younger set. Derek Santos is sweet and, more important , capable as Ralphie. Santos creates a Ralphie who is bewildered and beleaguered by his 9 years on earth, yet manages to maintain the magic optimism of youth. Esther Jane, played by Rebecca Stevens, is more than a little smitten with Ralphie and is the source of some of his bewilderment. Other younger members of the ensemble have more thinly drawn characters to play, and they do so with varying results.
Lisa Tucker turns in the best performance of the adult group as Ralphie's mother. Although the goings-on in the house reach ridiculous heights, Tucker never loses track of her character's ability to amiably steer the family away from crises. Robert D. Murphy plays Ralphie's creative and occasionally obsessive father with admirable enthusiasm, but fails to master the balance between sincerity and silliness that "A Christmas Story" requires.
Ralphie's two-story house, designed by Audra Avery, is prominently featured, complete with ghastly wallpaper appropriate for the time. With the staircase ending in Ralphie's room, however, one does wonder where the rest of the family sleeps.
On the other hand, there's plenty of space on the Stoneham stage for the outdoor scenes, including the one that involves a tongue and a very important -- and frozen -- lamppost.