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Sonorous Road has set up a time machine in their theater at 3801 Hillsborough St. The kindly gentleman at the desk in front of the door takes your name and checks you in. He then hands you a few "gold" coins. You will need them once you go back....
For their Christmas selection this year, Sonorous Road has selected an adaptation of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." The SR team has created what they call an "interactive" script based on the short story that, in its own little way, has become as famous as Scrooge or Santa Claus. Be prepared, because once you are ushered through that magical door.... Presto! You are in a nightclub, The Porterhouse, and it's 1927. It is the Flapper Era, the Roaring Twenties, and the music is sweet jazz. A talented duo of piano and bass viol plays to our right, there are cafe tables and chairs to our left, and a full-size, nicely stocked bar faces us. On our table is a bill of fare; drinks and specialty snacks are available. That's what those coins were for. I recommend the eggnog, available with or without. Really hits the spot.
We are shortly blessed with the songbird's appearance, and she is decked out in the finest rags available, with a short mink stole. She is quintessentially a flapper with "the voice of an angel," according to one of the waitresses. She's Betty (AC Donohue), and she's here to entertain us. She is also, incidentally, Jim's younger sister. Jim? We'll meet him in a moment.
Shortly, we are pulled away from our comfortable reverie at the bar by our narrator, Chad Sheffield. Chad tells us we are about to meet the couple in question for the evening, Jim and Della. Jim (Jonathan King) is hard at work next to his best friend and co-worker, Rudy. Rudy looks very familiar. That's Sheffield. Like the omniscient narrator is wont to do, he pops up just about everywhere in this dirty, blustery, and downtrodden section of town.
It's Christmas Eve, and it's late – almost dark. The boys are hard at work, until they are called by their boss, Mr. Boseman (Doug Kapp), to his desk. He pours them each a liberal libation and toasts with them to the joys of the season. But there's no joy in him. With an apologetic but firm air, he informs them that the Christmas bonuses, which they have been counting on and have received each year, won't be coming this year. Jim tries valiantly to get his boss to reconsider; after all, they've already received one pay cut, and this Christmas bonus is what will get them through. Without it.... But Boseman explains that it's been a really tough year; there just isn't any money for bonuses. Boseman explains that there are more cuts to staff due after the first of the year, and gives each of them a letter from Corporate, explaining the situation. He also tries to soften the blow by providing each of them a coin they should use to get another drink at their favorite watering hole.
What we have witnessed is happening all over the city. Times are hard and they're going to get harder. No one knows it right now, but the Crash is coming. Right now, it's just hard times – and on Christmas Eve, too.
As Rudy and Jim exit, we are ushered out by one of the flappers. Using the same format for this performance as they did in October with House of the Fury, Sonorous Road moves us from one scene to the next. In this format, it is the audience that moves, right along with the cast. We follow Jim home to a small $8/week flat, where his wife, Della (Michelle Murray Wells), is preparing dinner. Such as it is. Despite this being a holiday eve, dinner is the same as usual: potato stew. We experience the cramped quarters of the apartment, which is really only one room, dominated at one end by a kitchen nook, at the other by their bed, and very little space between. No frills here, despite the season. Christmas carols can be heard on someone's radio nearby. But that's it.
Everyone knows O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." At the close of the show, we are magically transported back to The Porterhouse. We overhear two men chatting, and one says, "Ya know, there was a couple in here the other day, and they had never heard of this story. I said, 'Where have you been, under a rock?' I thought everybody knew 'The Gift of the Magi!'" If they don't, it's not for a lack of trying. Plays, movies, and readings of the story have filled our ears each year about how each, both Jim and Della, sacrifice their most prized possessions in order to get their mate a Christmas gift. O. Henry's genius comes at the very end of the story, when it is those prizes for which each buys the other a handsome – and hard won – gift from the heart.
In realism so hard it's almost scary, we are ushered from room to room, as we follow Jim and Della on their errands through town. The wig-maker's, the bookshop, then home again, each clutching his or her prize; at least one of them will have a fine gift for this Yuletide. And they learn, again, and we do too, that it is the giving that is the joy. Things are just that: things. It is their love that will endure, not the things. As Rudy and his wife, Frannie (Claire Bergman), stop by to see if they will join them at the Tree Lighting, the pair happily dons their winder garb and hurries into the street. And so do we, content in the knowledge that Jim and Della will endure. Whatever is thrown at them.
This Christmas present from Sonorous Road is lovingly and delicately packaged, and we unwrap it slowly, so as to draw from it the message contained therein. We have traveled across town and across the universe, and learned a wonderful Christmas message: despite hard and harder times, Christmas will always be a joy, hollowed out of a cold winter to warm us. Sonorous Road warms us with this wonderfully crafted tale, both in script and in execution. It is my duty to observe, and I couldn't find a single flaw. Stop in at Sonorous Road and do a little time traveling. It'll do your heart good.
The Gift of the Magi continues through Monday, December 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.