A Red Ryder BB Gun wasn’t on Jeffrey Pirro’s Christmas list when he was a kid growing up in Utica, but he still knows exactly how Ralphie felt.
“When I was 8 I wanted a Worldwide Wrestling Federation ring and the Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant action figures,” said Pirro, who plays the narrator, the adult Ralphie, in the Classic Theater Guild production of “A Christmas Story” opening Friday night at Proctors.
“I didn’t have the same challenges that Ralphie had, and I wasn’t going to shoot my eye out with a Hulk Hogan action figure. But I remember wanting something that badly, and I remember the exhilaration when I got it. At that age it’s the best thing that can happen to you.”
‘A Christmas Story’
WHERE: GE Theatre, Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20-22; and 2 p.m. Dec. 23
HOW MUCH: $17.50-$14.50
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
Originally a 1983 movie based on the autobiographical short stories of author and raconteur Jean Shepherd, “A Christmas Story” centers on 9-year-old Ralphie Parker, who dreams of getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.
Shepherd, who died in 1999, wrote the screenplay for the movie, which starred Ralph Billingsley as Ralphie, Darren McGavin as his father and Melinda Dillon as his mother. Philip Grecian, who turned Frank Capra’s Christmas classic, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” into a staged show, also adapted Shepherd’s work for the theater in 2000.
Shepherd also served as the narrator in the movie, the adult Ralphie, and in Grecian’s play that means even more work for Pirro, which is fine with him.
Different from movie
“This is adapted for the stage, and there are always different things you can do with a movie vs. the things you can do with a play,” said Pirro. “I play the Red Ryder cowboy, I play a few other characters, so I do interact with the other actors on stage. We’re having quite a bit of fun in rehearsals.”
A 2002 graduate of Siena College, Pirro is returning to the stage for the first time since he was in high school.
“I founded our drama Club in Utica where I grew up, and I have two brothers who acted and do a lot of stage managing in the Mohawk Valley,” he said.
“So I’ve always wanted to get back involved. At Siena I was involved in a lot of rec basketball and studying so it was acting that fell by the wayside, and since I’ve been working I’ve had to travel a lot and couldn’t make the time commitment. When I finally found myself with both the time and the opportunity to be in a great play, I decided it was time to get back into it.”
Pirro showed up at auditions and convinced director Tim Orcutt he was the right man for the role.
“I saw that he didn’t have a lot of experience on his resume, but he was very natural at the audition so I wasn’t concerned about that,” Orcutt said of Pirro. “I never pre-cast my show, and that way I end up getting some great talent to show up for auditions. Jeffrey did a great job. He was perfect for it.”
Among those joining Pirro on stage will be Jack Siple as Ralphie, Jesse Braverman as his father (“The Old Man”), Jennifer Van Iderstyne as his mother, and Jake Lehning as Scut Farkas, the neighborhood bully.
“This play has all the travails of youth,” said Pirro. “You have your buddies, who you dare to stick their tongue on the frozen pole, but you also have a bully, a crush on a girl, everything. And I think it also really captures the sentiment of Christmas and the whimsey. We can all remember really looking forward to something on Christmas Day, and having such a great time when we got it.”
“I think there’s a lot of Americana in this play,” said Orcutt, who grew up in Erie, Pa., and now lives in Scotia. “There’s all this imagery of classic winter and Christmas, and just about everyone can relate to that.”
“A Christmas Story” was regular Christmastime viewing for Pirro’s family growing up in Utica, and he wants to carry on that tradition.
“I have a 4-year-old daughter now, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m doing this,” said Pirro. “I can remember as a kid watching this movie and ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas.’ They were staples for me growing up, and I want to enjoy sharing them with my daughter. Through this I’m hoping she’ll also get an appreciation of the arts and theater, and that sort of thing I value very much. I think those traditions are very important.”
As the adult Ralphie and narrator in “A Christmas Story,” one thing he shouldn’t be in danger of doing is overacting.
“It’s a bit of a challenge playing the narrator as opposed to a traditional role,” he said. “You have to try to be subtly expressive. You can’t make a lot of physical gestures. But it’s a great experience, and I’m having a lot of fun getting back into acting. From what I’ve seen, the other actors all seem very dedicated, and our director and producer are doing a great job. Everybody is putting in the work that’s necessary to make a great play.”
Spotlight on bullying
Another goal of the Classic Theater Guild in producing this show is to put a spotlight on bullying. Half of the proceeds from the Dec. 20 performance will be donated to PACER, the organization which founded National Bullying Foundation.
“Ralphie must dodge the town bully, amongst many other challenges, to obtain his sacred gift,” said Amanda Stankavich, the producer of the show. “Ralphie’s challenge, while humorously portrayed, parallels a real, substantive social problem in today’s world. With half of the cast being kids, the Classic Theater Guild felt it was important to use this synergy to promote anti-bullying efforts.”