Move over, Scrooge; you’ve been replaced—by a boy who wants a beebee gun.
This year, in a departure from its longstanding tradition, Portland Center Stage opted to swap A Christmas Carol for A Christmas Story. While the titles are similar, the two plays are worlds apart. Indulge Culturephile, if you will, in a little comparison:
Carol is set in Victorian England, while Story takes place in 1950’s Indiana. While Carol ‘s elegant period costumes are charming, the trappings are undeniably “heavy.” It comes standard with four ghosts a-scolding, three thieves a-plundering, two welfare solicitors, and a small crippled child who briefly dies. Maybe in more economically prosperous times, these crises would seem comfortably oblique, mere whimseys of an improbable tale. But this year, Ebenezer Scrooge’s offhanded talk about dispensing the poor to “prisons and workhouses,” might have cut a little too close to the bone. While Carol is dogged by death and poverty, the Parker family in A Christmas Story is dogged by—well, actual dogs, namely their neighbors’ unruly hounds. Other unthreateningly trivial concerns include a slightly stern teacher, a smallish bully, and a frozen flagpole that proves unfit for licking.
One man against the world
In this respect, the two stories are almost the same. Carol ‘s Scrooge is pitted against a world that rejects his pessimism, while Story protagonist Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder air rifle is constantly put to a challenge. Okay, so Scrooge is an irascible old loan shark, Ralphie Parker a naive nine-year-old. Nevertheless, each is One Man, trudging face-first into a cold winter wind of dissent.
Well, Ralphie kind of wants to “save the world,” inasmuch as his age-nine mind can grasp that concept. He fantasizes about protecting his friends in dangerous “Indiana swampland,” and fending off “insensate evil” (in the form of stripe-shirted masked robbers), but it’s clear that he mostly wants to be a cowboy badass. His fantasies portray him being hailed a “hero,” while wearing spangly fringed dude-duds fit for Nashville royalty. Meanwhile, Scrooge seems to want to punish the world for what he sees as unearned laziness and unwarranted cheer. In a way, both of these quests are allegedly about the common good, but really about ego. Scrooge wants to be recognized as the superior worker, in the same way Ralphie wants to be seen as the most capable cowboy.
The storytelling slant
Carol ‘s narrator openly passes judgment on Mr. Scrooge. He initially rebukes him as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner,” but eventually paints him as “as good a man as the good old city knew.” Meanwhile, the narrator in A Christmas Story is an older version of Ralphie, and as such, indulgently biased. While some of his observations are wry, he mostly defends his younger self, embracing and reliving the boy’s naiveté. At PCS, Darius Pierce dispatches this role with an easy charm. He also shows a rare ability to be exactly as present in a scene, as is warranted, blending into the wallpaper to await the next cue.
Various members of Scrooge’s community call him out for his “humbug” attitude. When they fail to reach him, the spirit world chimes in, sending a series of ghosts to set him straight. They warn Scrooge that if he doesn’t show more compassion for his fellow man, he’ll face dire consequences. Ralphie is also repeatedly warned—by his parents, his teacher, and even the mall Santa Claus. “You’ll shoot your eye out!” they say whenever he dares to voice his beebee-gun dreams. In both plays, a lot of the action consists of the hero getting told “no.”
Scrooge cracks under the supernatural pressure, reverses his old impulses and goes on a “save the world” spree, and the community rewards him for his contrition and new-found empathy. But Ralphie sticks to his guns, and ends up getting what he wants, “an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time.” He then immediately almost shoots his eye out (just as his admonishers warned), but lies about it, and “sleeps the sleep of the just and fulfilled.” He has triumphantly learned nothing, except that persistence pays off.
The only reason we’re even engaging in this little intellectual exploration, is because A Christmas Story as performed by PCS, is beyond reproof. Suffice to say the much-beloved movie has been translated fluently to the stage. There’s a cutaway two-story dollhouse-style set, a tinsel-lined stairway to Santa, a snowy lane, and even a car with working headlights. The characters fill their movie-mandated roles, and even seem to wear the movie-dictated clothes. Nothing is left to the imagination, and actually, the show is spectacular for it. It makes perfect sense that a play that’s about indulging childish fantasies, would be produced with all the desired bells and whistles. Kudos to all directorial and logistics personnel, for going all the way. If there’s anything to be learned from A Christmas Story, it’s that it’s okay to get everything you want.
So adieu, fusty English moralism, and howdy, American entitlement. For better and worse, we’ve seen a changing of the guard.
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