The first question any stage adaptation of The Gift of The Magi must answer is how to make it an evening-length work. It would scarcely take twenty minutes to enact the three brief scenes in O. Henry's most famous short story, especially because two of them play out in the same modest flat on a New York side street, where young married couple Jim and Della Young are struggling. Jim lost his last job, and his pay has just been cut by a third at his current one. Now it is Christmas, and the young couple has very little money for celebration.
In this clever, immersive adaptation, Sonorous Road artistic director Michelle Murray Wells and her cast answer the question by adding new details to a small world. Then she bids intimate audiences—eighteen at the most for each show—to walk in the Youngs' shoes. After grabbing a drink in a Jazz Age speakeasy where Jim (a sterling Jonathan King) tends bar while Stella (A.C. Donohue) sings the blues, we follow him down a street of carolers and into his apartment. Then we split up when the couple does, after an argument. One group follows Jim as he seeks the counsel of a friend, while the other stays with the pensive Della (Wells) and witnesses her subsequent decisions.
So far, so innovative. Director Zachary Roberts admirably conveys the tensions in this young marriage; at moments, the silences in the flat suggest the joyless urban canvases of Edward Hopper. But even with added subplots involving friends and children, one carol too many, and a dilatory hands-on arts-and-crafts sequence, the production feels a bit padded. Its greatest triumphs come in its humblest moments: the crumpled brown paper in which true treasures are wrapped, the plain vintage Christmas lights that bring the group such joy, and the shelter two young loves finally find in each other. Those are the real gifts of these Magi, and they're not insubstantial ones.