Stage Right: Musical is a Christmas story for everyone
Published 8:45 pm Friday, December 3, 2021
Stage Right by Michael G. Lilienthal
A Christmas tree in a lower corner of the stage signals that we’re gathering for a celebration. The presents piled underneath tantalize us all as though we were children, eager to tear open the wrapping and see what treasures are inside. The curtain opens, and we have our gift.
In ACT’s production of “A Christmas Story,” directed by Glen Parsons and Nick Parsons, we are invited to see in young Ralphie Parker (played by Joshua Brooks) the universal “I” of Christmas experience. Brooks embodies each of us especially in that pressing need to see our Christmas wishes come true. As he cradles his imagined Red Ryder carbine-action BB gun, singing with childish desperation, we might see ourselves cradling those things, those presents, we have always thought were necessary for our existence. For young boys it might indeed be that Red Ryder carbine-action BB gun (while our mothers warn us to be careful for our eyes), but for the Old Man, it might be recognition, some fulfillment of potential.
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Stuart Ness fills out the role of Ralphie’s Old Man and explodes with energy as he yearns for that prize that shows his relevance. Caricaturized by his kids as the bumbling, cursing father, Ness shows the still-boyish passion behind Mr. Parker’s life. Meanwhile, Betsy Smith in the role of Ralphie’s Mother is the quintessence of subtle endurance, strength and heart. She yearns for something, too, and sometimes her desires run counter to those of her loved ones, but her love and her tender, mighty voice will move audiences to tears.
Little brother Randy rounds out the Parker family. Samuel Gustafson serves in this role with gusto and thrill, eliciting countless laughs. Whatever else is going on onstage, one can’t help but watch to see what goofy fun Gustafson is up to.
In many family Christmases, we know that part of Christmas joy is watching the fun the children are having. The kids ensemble and other young actors give us that same joy, whether it’s Nora Smith with a well-timed slice of gallows humor or the various children tap-dancing with the imaginary version of Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields. And Christie Ness is vibrant in the role of Miss Shields, bringing a sizeable helping of that magic we all, kids and grown-ups, are looking for from Christmas.
The Parkers are the heart of this story, as it’s ultimately a story about family and home. The set, designed by Mark Bartleson, is mostly suggestive and sparse, with heavy use of a projector and screen to depict the schoolyard, classroom and more. But the home is a solid set of walls and furniture. The home is where the worlds of children and adults collide, and it all culminates in Christmas itself. That Christmas tree in the corner of the stage belongs to the Parker home. In the end, they show their love around that symbol of life and light with gifts and time and effort.
If Ralphie is the universal “I,” the Parkers are the universal family. We all want magic, and we’re all kids at heart, even if we need reminding once in a while. We all feel that urgent need that kids do, whether it’s for a Red Ryder carbine-action BB gun or something else. The magic is in there somewhere, in the silly, desperate and heartfelt singing, in the simply, joyful dancing, and in the lows and highs that make up this life.
Ralphie’s imagination and his real experience take us to the heights of hope and the depths of sadness. But even when the family goes out of the walls of their home, the magic that makes them family remains. Come join the family, and find the joy in this Christmas story together.
Michael G. Lilienthal serves as the pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Albert Lea, and in his free time enjoys writing, reading and podcasting on the Tapestry Radio Network. He competed nationally at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for Theatre Criticism in 2011. He has also written a handful of short plays and one full-length production called “The Oak Trees Still Stand.” He lives in Albert Lea with his wife, Sarah, and their several foster children.