Saturday, December 5, 2015

Faulkner: "An O. Henry Christmas"

Howard Burman's An O. Henry Christmas, an intriguing and inventive telling of several O. Henry stories, is being given a strong and sensitive showing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre, under Faulkner alumnus and first-time director Tony Davison.

With an eight member ensemble of students, alumni, and faculty at his disposal, Mr. Davison exhibits clear storytelling and mostly effective staging, though placement of actors occasionally blocks important action from view, and some tentative vocal projection rendered some dialogue difficult to hear.

Played on Matt Dickson's detailed set -- a kind of Skid Row outdoor gathering place for an assortment of New York City vagrants and homeless -- and with Angela Dickson's evocative costumes, this production is one of Faulkner's most visually accomplished in its simplicity; and the acting company match it skillfully for its uninterrupted 90-minute running time.

On Christmas Eve, a rag-tag group gather, each with a back-story that comes to light as they argue among themselves: Hal [George Scrushy establishing himself as a fine actor here], an unapologetic drunk who has squandered his inheritance; Dinty [Matt Dickson is utterly convincing], a cynical and frustrated artist waiting to produce his masterpiece; Fran [Brittney Johnston who never fails to inhabit her characters with complete believability], a tough street-wise skeptic; Agnes [Emiy Woodring in a sensitive portrayal], ever optimistic and supportive of her friends; Marguerite [Alex Rikerd in a sympathetic role], a sickly defeatist who believes she is dying; and Grover [Morgan Baker is stalwart], a former doctor refusing to practice because "there are no second mistakes die". -- They are joined at several moments by Guido [Douglas Hamilton is the newcomer to the acting company], a cop on the beat who must uphold the law regarding vagrants, but who is sympathetic to their situations.

A mysterious stranger named O.P. [Chris Kelly commands every scene], who insinuates himself into their dismal world by trading stories for food and shelter, and cajoles them into participating in the stories he provides them (the O. Henry stories of the play's title -- and though none of them are named, "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Last Leaf" are among the familiar tales they spin).

These stories serve to either reflect the experiences of the characters, or provide them with ample encouragement to change their behavior. It is Christmas, after all, and most of them change for the better when they realize how important sacrifice is in the service of their fellows. Their individual journeys to self-realization are the crux of the matter in this gentle and hopeful production so appropriate to the Christmas Season.