For its holiday season, Triumvirate Theatre North is tackling a well-known classic.
“A Christmas Story” — best known as the 1983 movie based on a story written by Jean Shepherd — debuts this weekend with 7 p.m. showings Friday and Saturday, and continues next weekend with performances Dec. 27 and 28.
The story follows the holiday happenings in the Parker household and is centered around the young Ralphie Parker, whose adult voice narrates the story throughout. Shepherd’s writings were inspired by his childhood in the Midwest (the Parker family lives in Indiana), when the object of Ralphie’s attention is a special Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle.
As Ralphie’s parents pop in and out of the picture with their own clumsy antics, the young boy is persistent in making no secret of his dreams to receive a Red Ryder rifle for Christmas.. He is continually met by a familiar refrain, however, that “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
The show’s director, Carla Jenness, is making her fourth outing as a director at Triumvirate, as she typically works behind the scenes in production. Jenness said the show had been in consideration by the theater company for several years, but this holiday season proved to be the best chance to do it, particularly since the leading role of young Ralphie went to Jenness’ 12-year-old son Kincaid.
“I love the movie. I love the story, my whole family’s in this thing,” Jenness said. “Joe said we should do it this year and Kincaid should be Ralphie. I said we’d better do it this year, because Kincaid will be too old (next year).”
Carla Jenness has been a part of Triumvirate theater since the beginning, around 18 years ago. Appropriately she plays the role of Ralphie’s mother, while her husband, Chris, also stars in the show as Ralphie’s father, the Old Man, whose crowning achievement in the play is the lamp trophy he won in a contest that depicts a woman’s leg, complete with fishnet stockings. Jenness said her occasional appearances as director make her appreciate the juggling act it is to produce and act as well.
“What I’ve discovered very quickly is, directing a show you’re in is very difficult,” Jenness said. “Clint Eastwood does it in movies, and it’s like, ‘How does he do it?’”
The story flows along in vignettes that feature comedic and entertaining situations in the family and in Ralphie’s quest for the Red Ryder rifle.
Kincaid Jenness is already a veteran of the stage, having been cast in productions since age 4, when he part of a tap dancing routine for a production of “Georgette.” “A Christmas Story” is Kincaid’s ninth show for Triumvirate, but it’s one of his most important roles.
“I don’t have a lot of lines myself, but I’m in almost every single scene,” he said. “I don’t say a lot but things that I do can impact the show. If I’m up there and not doing those things, then it doesn’t work.”
In one scene, Ralphie meets the Higbee’s mall Santa Claus, played by Nikiski’s Tyler Payment, who has been in around a dozen productions for Triumvirate. The scene typically brings out the laughter with the mall Santa going through the routine of sitting hundreds of children on his lap before sending them on their way down a slide.
The role of Santa is tailor made for Payment, who is already quite familiar with the story line.
“I’ve seen this movie every year since I was a kid,” Payment said. “It’s my Christmas Day movie.”
Payment said the Santa scene is one of his favorite, explaining that the version of Santa that kids see is in many ways different than what it’s intended to be.
“He’s so deranged,” Payment said. “Jean Shepherd does such a good job of showing how kids view Santa in a lot of ways — He’s this man that no one knows, you have to sit on his lap for some reason, you tell him your most intimate secrets as a child, and then he gives you things made in China.
“Some kids are great with him but other kids are just terrified.”
Payment credited Jenness for creating an ideal environment to work in, which he owes to her experience in the field of stage production.
“Carla’s just done so many shows,” Payment said. “She’s a treat to work with.”
Jenness, who teaches English at Nikiski High School, said her philosophy as director has always been to keep the mood light and playful. That way the cast is ready to go and attack a role.
“I have to remind myself, it’s supposed to be fun,” Jenness said. “They’ve been in school all day, they love to come to the theater and play tag for 10 minutes before rehearsal. I’m not the kind of director that yells a lot, or is the bad cop.”
Jenness praised the help from Triumvirate’s Joe Rizzo, Hannah Tauriainen, and her husband, Chris Jenness, for lending their expertise to the show. Tauriainen joins the cast as Ralphie’s school teacher Miss Shields.
Both Payment and Jenness said one of the biggest challenges of the production is all the moving pieces, set changes and abundance of props, which include a vintage radio, stove top and a real front bumper and grille from a 1957 Buick.