Desire is a powerful emotion, perhaps the most powerful of them all. It makes people do crazy things. One of the most iconic contemporary depictions of the power of desire is the character Ralphie Parker from “A Christmas Story.” He wants just one thing, and it’s a hunger that consumes him. For Christmas, he wants a Red Ryder BB Gun. And he’ll do just about anything to get it.
The movie is shown for 24 straight hours on TBS between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Every year, the network estimates that more than 50 million people tune in at some point during the day. Few holiday films are more beloved. This season, Penobscot Theatre Company picked the stage version of “A Christmas Story” as its December show, and not unexpectedly, it’s a heartwarming, hilarious holiday romp. The manic energy, irreverent humor and inherent sweetness of the movie remain firmly intact.
Ralphie Parker is played by Nick Danby, last seen in PTC’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” as the wise-beyond-his-years Jem Finch. Danby, an eighth grader at James F. Doughty Middle School in Bangor, is 13 going on 30. Ralphie is supposed to be nine years old in the show, and Danby has found playing younger — even just four years younger — a challenge.
“I don’t think I acted like a little kid even when I was a little kid,” said Danby, whose father, George Danby, is editorial cartoonist for the Bangor Daily News. “I’ve really had to evaluate who my character is, and get into all the different aspects of Ralphie. He wants what he wants, and does what he can to get it. I think he’s a little less outgoing than I am. And I think I’m more mature.”
Director Nathan Halvorson chose Danby for the part for several reasons. First, and primarily, because he was right for it.
“Nick is very seriously focused on his work, sometimes more so than the adults,” said Halvorson. “He wants to get it right. He takes it seriously. But he’s also a little ham.”
The other reason had more to do with Danby himself. When he found out back in the spring that “A Christmas Story” would be the holiday play, he set out with great zeal and determination for the part of Ralphie. Not unlike how Ralphie sets out for his BB gun.
“I already had the script. That’s all I talked about for months. I knew I could do it,” said Danby, who cites actors as diverse as Jack Nicholson and Groucho Marx as inspirations. “I got the part in September and it’s all I’ve been working on.”
There are lots of other young people in the cast, of course. Several open auditions over the summer and fall resulted in a few new faces on the PTC stage as well as some veterans. The precocious 11-year-old Nathan Manaker (also seen in “Mockingbird”) plays Ralphie’s little brother, Randy, and newcomer Nic Galinski, 15, plays the menacing, cruel bully Scut Farkus. Flick and Schwartz, the duo of “triple dog dare” and tongue-on-the-flagpole fame, are played by the hilarious Aidan Babbitt and Cole May, respectively, and Ralphie’s classmates Helen and Esther Jane are played by Maia Loeb and Kate McKenna Fogg.
“The kids are just so good,” said Halvorson. “We’re so lucky to have such fun, devoted young actors with us. They are endlessly entertaining. I think this show in particular is going to be a hit with lots of different people, including people who don’t usually come to the theatre. [‘A Christmas Story’ has] got its own reputation, and it’s really a hoot.”
Adult actors in the play include Arthur Morison and Jeri Misler, as Ralphie’s long suffering parents, Mr. and Mrs. Parker, and Jasmine Ireland as Miss Shields, Ralphie’s teacher who, along with so many others, tells him “You’ll shoot your eye out!” if he does indeed get his BB gun. Dominick Varney plays Adult Ralphie, who narrates the play, as well as a number of other, smaller roles.
“It’s fun to relive that kind of boyhood excitement surrounding Christmas,” said Varney. “Nick and I watch each other during the play, and try to play off each other. I’m a little bit him, he’s a little bit me.”
The show is one of the more technically challenging productions PTC has done in a while, with hundreds of sound and light cues designed by Aaron Noble and Shon Causer; a complex, multilevel set designed by Erik D. Diaz; 1940s-style costumes by Rebecca Wright, and a cavalcade of iconic props (the leg lamp!) wrangled by Meredith Perry.
“I’m amazed this show has never been done in Maine before,” said Halvorson. “It’s a blast. If anything will get you into the holiday spirit, it’ll be this show.”
“A Christmas Story” opens at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2 at the Bangor Opera House. It runs Dec. 2-4, Dec. 8-11, Dec. 15-18, and Dec. 20-23. For tickets, call 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.