Year after year, for the past 40 holiday seasons, the masses tune in to witness Ralphie Parker’s ambitious quest to secure his dream Christmas present — an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle — in the 1983 classic A Christmas Story.
Written by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark, the hit film was inspired by a series of short stories, entitled In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, released by Shepherd in 1970 about his small-town upbringing in Indiana. Now, those stories have been adapted yet again, this time by Philip Grecian into the stage show A Christmas Story: The Play, which is currently enjoying a run at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St. in Bristol. This live interpretation pays homage to storytime evenings that Grecian shared with his own children, reading Shepherd’s words.
Ahead of opening night last Thursday, The Times caught up with Nick Barrington, who is portraying Ralphie, and Brenny Campbell, who is taking on the role of Mother, to discuss what it’s like to bring this iconic tale to life in Bucks County.
For both stars, being part of the cast has been a joyous experience. While Barrington is no stranger to the stage, having appeared in his town’s small, local productions of Mary Poppins and Peter Pan, in addition to shows put on at the conclusion of a children’s theater workshop, A Christmas Story marks his first-ever professional production.
“This is my first big, big, big show, so I’m very excited,” he said.
As for Campbell, who has lent her talents to regional theaters across the country, she played the role of Ralphie’s teacher Mrs. Shields in a production of A Christmas Story 13 years ago in Albany, New York.
“So it’s very fun to revisit the story as a different character,” she said.
Bristol Riverside Theatre’s presentation of A Christmas Story includes all of the film’s beloved moments, from the Old Man’s prized leg lamp and the pink bunny pajamas, to Flick getting his tongue stuck to a pole and Randy struggling to put his arms down in his bulky winter gear. Also similar to the film, many of these happenings are narrated by an older and wiser Ralphie.
When asked to name his favorite part about playing 9-year-old Ralphie, Barrington was quick to praise the character’s costumes, especially during the dream sequences, in which he fantasizes about life with a Red Ryder.
“He gets into a whole cowboy outfit, a whole Shakespeare suit. I think all those fun costumes, the audience is really going to enjoy it a lot because I know I did,” said Barrington. “And I just really like the character of Ralphie in general, how he’s just fighting for one little toy that, probably to a mom and dad, seems like, ‘What? All that just for a little toy?’ But for a character like him, that’s all he’s thinking about. It’s a funny concept in itself, and I like how that works out.”
Campbell admitted that, despite A Christmas Story being one of her favorite holiday movies, she’s boycotting it this year so that the performance of the late Melinda Dillon doesn’t put too much influence on her rendition of Mother.
According to Campbell, director Amy Kaissar wanted the show to be clearly set in 1940. In the midst of the Great Depression and America on the brink of entering WWII, this lower-middle class family is trying to live as normally as possible. “Normal” in this era meant the husband went to work and the wife maintained the house. In bringing Mother to life, Campbell is making sure the character — whom she named Betsy Parker — isn’t felt sorry for by audiences, but rather applauded for fiercely caring for her family.
“The delight for me in making Mother my own is to see, on a day-to-day basis, what are the joys of serving oatmeal? It’s so silly, but truly, your children are nourished,” she said. “Are they ready for school? Are they on time for school? Are they safe? Is my husband happy?”
Regarding her on-stage family, Campbell had nothing but praise. Of Ben Lloyd, who plays the Old Man, she applauded his impulses about the tone of certain scenes, which usually aligned with what she was envisioning.
She said of Barrington, “Nick is a terrific actor. He is a beautiful human. He is joyful, cheerful, focused, hardworking. You lose your heart to Nick. In looking at his little face on stage, it’s very easy to imagine my own son’s face and the love and the care that I feel for him. It was a walk in the park to create family with those two amazing people.”
Though it’s admittedly been a bit weird for Barrington to have a second set of parents, he expressed gratitude toward Campbell, his other co-stars and BRT staff for helping him feel at-ease as he tackles his biggest acting achievement to date.
“Everybody helps you if you stutter on a line or mess up,” he said. “It’s a good community of people.”
Barrington landed the role of Ralphie after traveling to New York City in the summer for an audition. There was a waiting room full of fellow child actors and, naturally, it was a nerve-wracking environment. However, Barrington felt at ease when the boy before him wished him good luck after exiting the audition room. After his own audition, upon exiting the room, Barrington did the same for the next boy.
“I thought that was a nice thing, passing on the kindness,” he said. “I was very intimidated because it was actually my first in-person audition because of COVID, so I was very nervous. But I’m very happy I did it because now I’m here.”
Unlike Campbell, Barrington wasn’t super familiar with A Christmas Story before landing the role of Ralphie. So, his mom put it on for him to watch and he absolutely loved it.
“It was so funny. Every scene was like its own little movie, the lamp post scene, the bunny scene, the leg lamp scene. They just all felt like a bunch of funny skits into one movie, and I really enjoyed how it went and how in the end, it’s tied with a ribbon,” he said. “I really like those kinds of stories.”
Since the majority of people are longtime fans of A Christmas Story (or at least have a general sense of the plotline), Campbell anticipates laughter from the audience happening before some scenes even take place. For example, when the lamp post is wheeled out, most instantly know that Flick’s tongue debacle is about to begin.
“They’re going to see the setup and they’re going to be filled with their own memories of it, which will hold equal dignity with whatever we are doing and giving them,” she said. “So I really feel the audience is going to teach us those moments to allow them to have the movie and our show at the same time, and I have a feeling it’s going to be very symbiotic in those moments on stage.”
Both Campbell and Barrington are also excited for theater-goers to experience the hilarious bunny suit scene that unfolds on Christmas morning at the Parkers’.
“I really like the idea of an aunt that thinks their own nephew is a girl and 5 years old,” said Barrington. “She probably thinks that he likes that pink bunny suit, and just that idea of her wrapping the gift and going, ‘Oh, Ralphie’s gonna love this!,’ I think that’s really funny. You don’t see it because it’s all upstairs, but if you did do the scene of him opening it and taking out that bunny suit, I can just picture the look on his face of disgust. I think it’s really funny when he trots down the stairs and he’s just covered in a pink blob of bunnies and he looks like a pink nightmare.”
Such humorous moments have helped A Christmas Story stand the test of time over the span of four decades. However, it remains a holiday classic for a deeper reason.
“I think people are always nostalgic for childhood,” said Campbell. “What is beautiful in our play is the work that Richard Watson is doing as the adult Ralph. There are moments of discovery in every one of his monologues. He’s not just telling and showing; he’s living what it was like to be 9. There are moments when he will see his parents as an adult, and just the way Act 3 of Our Town is very beautiful when Emily comes back from her grave to look back at her life, there are these moments of seeing yourself and your family with longing and love and appreciation. I don’t think people can ever get enough of that, so I think that’s why it endures — because it gives us back childhood.”
Director Kaissar shared a similar sentiment: “It’s been a pretty difficult couple of years, so it’s not surprising that we’re in a multi-generational moment of nostalgia for the before times. Now 1940, 11 years into the depression and on the brink of the U.S. entering WWII wasn’t exactly a simpler time. But childhood was, when our biggest problem was how to convince our parents to buy us the toy we wanted. With A Christmas Story, I hope that we’re bringing the audience all of the comfort and joy that comes with sharing our memories of childhood, favorite movies and favorite Christmas stories with each other.”
Barrington might still be in life’s early years, but he has big plans for the future. Looking ahead, he intends to continue building his resume as an actor. He loves being on stage, and also appreciates the fact that the world of theater has instilled in him a sense of patience. Not every audition is going to be successful, but he knows that, even after a few failed attempts, a new opportunity will come along.
He also dreams of someday appearing in a stage version of his favorite movie The Greatest Showman. Unless this opportunity could be wrapped up and placed under a tree, Barrington doesn’t see himself pining after a gift quite like Ralphie.
“Of course I do want some stuff for Christmas, but nothing as much as Ralphie did in that show, going to all those lengths, going to Higbee’s department store, writing a whole theme on it, telling his parents. I wouldn’t go to all those lengths to get something, not yet at least,” said Barrington.
Meanwhile, Campbell’s wish for the holiday season is that A Christmas Story audiences take away one vital message from the show: “Savor being alive with your loved ones as we are now. Not everything is guaranteed, so hold the present like the gift that it is.”
A Christmas Story runs through Dec. 31. The cast also includes BRT veteran Demetria Joyce Bailey as Mrs. Shields, and Tristan Monaghan and Brady McAnany as Randy.
Tickets are available online at brtstage.org or by calling the box office at 215-785-0100.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com