MIDVALE — It’s that special time of year again. While the weather turns cold, most of us are rushing about to buy this or that for all the important people in our lives. In all the hustle and bustle of the season, there are endless activities vying for our attention. Options for entertainment always include going to see How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Nutcracker, or A Christmas Carol. I was looking to try something different, and in my search I happened upon a sweet little play called The Gift of the Magi adapted by Jon Jory from the short story by O. Henry, presented by the Sugar Factory Playhouse.
Director Karen Chatterton guided her cast in this heartfelt story of a husband and wife who come from incredibly humble circumstances. Husband James Young, played by Scott Butler, was the lynch-pin of the production. Butler held the play together with his command of both physical comedy and serious drama. Butler’s exuberance is enchanting as he plays a husband who is so in love with his wife that he would sacrifice anything to make her smile at Christmas.
James’s wife, Della, is played by Melissa Lawyer. Even though the play is set in New York in 1903 (before women’s suffrage), Della is no simpering little flower. She is a strong, independent woman who is also very in love with young James and wants to marry him. Lawyer plays up Della’s vivacious and outspoken nature from the beginning, and makes her portrayal exaggerated and quirky. Lawyer takes a few minutes to warm up to, but eventually she wins the audience over just as easily as her character wins over her future husband.
The characters themselves are endearing because of, and not despite, their foibles. A particularly touching scene shows both James and Della second-guessing their own worthiness to get married as they each feel the weight of their self-perceived imperfections. James even confesses to having danced with a girl who had not one, but two shoulders exposed! Smirking at this revelation, Della reminds him that she didn’t fall in love with “a perfect James.” She fell in love with him just as he was. I think that was the moment when I fell in love with this play. The production is not perfect, but it is endearing because of the enormous, heartfelt efforts of the cast and crew. It is easy to see that each actor is on the stage simply because they love what they are doing. And that love shines through each scene.
Behind the main husband and wife characters of Della and James is a troupe of actors who help set the scene for this charming love story. The ensemble is secondary to the story, but did contain a few standouts that present the viewer with quick but powerful ideas to contemplate. Della’s sister, Dorothy, played by Marie Johnson, delicately shows the struggle between marrying for love or marrying for security. The desire for money is not shown as greedy, but rather a practicality. Love can’t keep a woman fed or warm in the hard world of turn-of-the-century New York. Johnson provides a sensible and steady sister counterpart to Lawyer’s animated Della.
The character Madame Vodvaskaya, who buys cropped-off hair for wigs, also merits commenting. Portrayed by Debbie Keel, this quick but pivotal scene was hilarious. Keel plays a Russian countess whose sob story is infinitely worse than that of any of the poor wretches that come to her to sell their lovely locks. Likewise, Josh Baer also brings levity to the stage in the character of Digsby, James’ friend that personifies courage and impulsiveness. Baer’s talent was also showcased on the guitar for several numbers.
This play is not a musical. Rather, it’s play with classic Christmas carols woven throughout several scene breaks in the story. Instead of being jarring, it provides a nice lift in the pace and tone of the production. Unfortunately, some of the sound equipment malfunctioned in a few places and there were times that the mics weren’t balanced. However, all the actors could be heard throughout the charming space of the Midvale Performing Arts Center.
These tender scenes are all portrayed on a set designed by Vic and Michelle Groves, who use the space well and keep the set minimal and utilitarian to support the action. The intimate nature of the space lets the audience peer right into the threadbare lives of the struggling couple who are just trying find ways to honor each other and make ends meet.
This humble production truly helps the audience feel the Christmas Spirit. It is not a big or flashy spectacle, but it has a tremendous amount of heart. For any grinch struggling with the commercialism of the season and looking for something different, Gift of the Magi will make your heart grow three sizes larger.