Tall Tale

Cleveland Play House found the perfect Ralphie — if he would only stop growing.

"Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory." The columnist Franklin Pierce Adams said that, and there's no more bracing counterpoint to the fits of nostalgia that run rampant this time of year.

The Grand Marshal of this annual nostalgia parade might be A Christmas Story, the warm and witty story about a little boy's love for a gun. Again taking the stage at the Cleveland Play House, this theatrical version of the now-classic movie, adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian, is a misty, soft-focus journey back to the 1940s, when even neighborhood bullies and constantly malfunctioning coal furnaces were more to be laughed at than despised.

In this iteration, the parents and grown-up Ralphie are played by a solid trio of actors. Charles Kartali as The Old Man — Ralphie's dad — seems totally at ease and makes use of a colorful palette of near-obscenities in his rants against the smoke-spewing furnace in the basement and the aggressive hound dogs owned by the next-door Bumpus clan. Elizabeth Ann Townsend is the very picture of the ideal mom — smart (she answers all of her husband's crossword clues), funny, and wise enough to back off when her sons need space. This even extends to allowing little Randy to camp out under the sink when the mood strikes him.

Although it's virtually impossible to replace the movie narrator's distinctive voice — which was owned by Jean Shepherd, the creator and writer of the story and movie — Christopher McHale once again handles his duties as old Ralphie with total focus. As the narrator, he lovingly describes many of the nostalgic fragments of a boy's life back then — tin dirigibles with friction wheels, secret decoder rings, and the like.

Of course, the challenge for such a production is to find kids who look right as the elementary schoolers, but who can still act their socks off. Trouble is, once you find them, they soon outgrow their believability. For example, in the centerpiece role of nine-year-old Ralphie, second-timer Billy Lawrence handles his lines well, but appears more like a junior-high kid, undercutting the innocence of Ralphie's monomaniacal desire for a Red Ryder BB gun. Also, he's inappropriately taller than bully Scut Farkas (Cameron McKendry).

But Joey Stefano is just the right size for Randy, and he creates laughs with his nosedive into his plate of food when Mom invites him to act like "her little piggy." And Kolin Morgenstern is perfectly adorable as Flick, Ralphie's put-upon pal, who gets his tongue freeze-welded to the schoolyard lamppost. If he doesn't grow too much — back away from those Flintstones Vitamins, kid — he could be the next Ralphie.

Director Seth Gordon pushes all the right buttons and delivers another wonderful gift for those of us with conveniently failing memories.