Director Richard Dennis took a gamble with the holiday classic A Christmas Story.
He put the narrator on stage, and even gave him a few roles to play.
"This is the first time in a long while that I've played a role of this volume," said actor Daniel Armitage, who plays the grown-up Ralphie Parker in Denton Community Theatre's production. "It's been a challenge."
A Christmas Story is Philip Grecian's stage adaptation of the classic 1983 film about Ralphie Parker's most memorable Christmas. In the late 1940s, a 9-year-old boy has a single Christmas wish: "an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time."
There's just one problem. Ralphie's mother, teacher and even the department store Santa put the kibosh on his fantasies. "You'll shoot your eye out," they tell him.
Ralphie has other worries, too. He's got a crush on classmate Esther Jane, his little brother, Randy, has a habit of hiding in inconvenient places, and neighborhood bully Scut Farkus seems to have some kind of missile lock on Ralphie and his friends.
And then there is the matter of the Old Man: Ralphie's father is loud, gruff and easy to irritate — never a useful scenario when Santa's omniscient eyes are counting childhood misdeeds.
In most productions of the play, the narrator is just a voice. Dennis said he rolled the dice and decided to put Armitage onstage, where he peers over the shoulders of his family, remembering the year when he learned that disappointment might feel eternal, but is most often temporary.
"I'm on the board of DCT, and I came to auditions mostly to watch," said Armitage, who is the vice president of Student Affairs at the University of North Texas. "I decided to audition, and Richard cast me. I've worked in a theater where this story has been done before. I love the story. It's been a challenge, vocally and energy-wise, to jump from Santa Claus to the narrator, and from the cowboy back to the narrator."
Dennis cast Jackson Blanton to play young Ralphie, a demanding role that keeps Jackson on stage for most of the play.
"The first night of read-throughs, I took a selfie with [Jackson]," Armitage said. "I posted it, and I thought it was important that I make some decisions based on what he's doing as an actor."
For his part, Jackson said he admires Armitage.
"At the first read-through, Richard said that I should listen to the way he says things, and that's what I've been doing. Overall, I think he's an awesome actor, and I hope I'm as good as he is when I grow up."
While the action rests on the two iterations of Ralphie, the Indiana town where the Parkers live is fleshed out by working families, noisy schoolhouses and all kinds of children.
Cole Robbins plays the unfortunate Flick, Ralphie's buddy and the slowest runner of the group. Throughout the play, poor Flick nurses sore arms, courtesy of bad old Scut. (He also accepts the dare to stick his tongue to a frozen lamppost, one of the most beloved of scenes in both the movie and the play.)
"I think Flick's taking one for the team," Cole said.
"I think Flick's smaller. Schwartz is tall, and Ralphie is quick. And he's the most scared of Flick," said Gavin Dennis, who plays the sneering, taunting Scut. "I think he has bad luck."
Richard Dennis cast children to fill Miss Shields' class. The young actors noticed a big difference between the children of the 1940s and themselves. Maggie Wildersmith, who performs in the ensemble, couldn't help noticing that girls wore dresses and skirts to school. Luke Knittle said his studies of the script revealed adults with lots of authority.
"They were a lot more respectful of adults," Luke said. "They had different gestures, too. I have to hit some of the other actors across the arm. If you did that today, the kid would look at you and go, 'What are you doing? That hurt. Why would you do that?'"
Sadie Dennis, who plays the role of future class valedictorian Helen, also noticed the respect paid to adults in the play.
"You see them in the classroom, and while they might fling stuff around, they still respect the teacher," she said. "It's different now."
Denton actor Bryan Patrick plays the role of the Old Man, the fearsome father who doesn't totally rule the Parker roost.
"This is a typical 1940s family," Patrick said. "They have their expectations of each other — their roles. The Old Man and his wife have that bit where he hands her all the bills one by one when he comes in. Because she runs the household, she pays the bills. He makes the money."
The show keeps favorites from the film — the garish leg lamp the Old Man preens over, the raucous hounds at the Bumpus house next door. As the narrator, the adult Ralphie wraps up the show in a tidy Christmas bow.
"I think what people get about the movie — and the play — is that, yeah, Christmas dinner is a disaster and the dogs got the turkey. But the Old Man takes a breath and says, 'Get your coats. We're going to the Chinese restaurant in town,'" Dennis said. "He knows that what's important is that they are all together."
Performances of A Christmas Story are at 7:30 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8-9, and Friday and Saturday, Dec. 15-16, at the Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory St. Matinee performances are at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10 and Dec. 17.
Tickets cost $22 for adults, $18 for seniors 62 and older, $15 for students with valid ID and $10 for ages 12 and under. For reservations, call 940-382-1915.
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.
FEATURED IMAGE: From left to right, Jacob Radcliff as Randy, Bryan Patrick as the Old Man, Ash Robbins as Mother and Jackson Blanton as Ralphie, perform in Denton Community Theatre's A Christmas Story. Jeff Woo/DRC