The Gift of the Magi was adapted by Jon Jory from a 1905 short story by O. Henry. Logically enough given the genre of origin, the play is fairly short and condensed. The narrative traces newlyweds Della and Jim Young on their quest to purchase Christmas gifts for each other in spite of their tight finances. True, the paltry amounts they have to purchase gifts with are laughably outdated. After all, Della’s hard-saved $1.87 will not even score you a Starbucks coffee these days. Sadly, the harsh realities of financial hardship are nonetheless just as palpably relevant today as they were over 100 years ago. In fact, Jim (Josh Mooiweer) has been forced to accept a one-third pay cut at work. The company positions itself as benevolent, opting for a pay cut over a layoff. As Della (Becky Brown) finds, there is little joy in managing the home economics of subsistence living as Jim lines his worn shoes with borrowed newspaper from a coworker each day, literally limping along.
Despite the economic distress of the Youngs, the play’s tone is far more cheery than depressing. This is largely due to two factors: the holiday setting and the freshly minted newlyweds. Before the play, carolers dressed in period costume sing. The live music is an unexpected delight given the recorded, speaker-fed music that precedes most plays. There’s genuine joy and spreading cheer as rising song warmly fills the theater, and you slide effortlessly into the holiday spirit without even realizing it.
Lighting designer Antonio Colaruotolo enhances the holiday mood with an understated, abstract snowflake pattern illuminated on the red curtain behind the carolers. In addition, the holiday spirit literally frames the stage as pine garlands interwoven with white lights and red ribbon trace the proscenium. When the curtain rises, it’s a Victorian tableau reminiscent of a Nutcracker performance. Actors in period costumes spring into action singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” and dancing. Costume designer Joan Markert unifies the ensemble with costumes that complement without competing or being overly busy.
We learn that according to Della’s diary, newlyweds Jim and Della Young have only been married for 171 days. They clearly live to and love to please each other, always finding a positive spin for their sacrifices and troubles. With the play’s youthful eagerness and heartwarming exuberance, it’s well-suited for a college production, making it a perfect fit for Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse. Brown and Mooiweer, both Point Park University students, radiate undaunted youth and exude a vibrancy that keeps the play from delving headlong into the darker elements that cloud it. Fast forward ten years, and Jim and Della may be bitter and worn-down. However, at this moment in time, there is a fresh and hopeful optimism about them that’s appropriately captured by Brown and Mooiweer who are occupying a similar space in life – the world of boundless future possibilities that college represents.
Della is one of three daughters all united by D names, and we get a glimpse into her roads not taken as we meet her sisters. The narrator (Somerset Young) informs us Donna Marie (Cara Quigley) went to Utah determined to marry well and achieved that goal. While Quigley’s appearance is brief, she exudes a bold, space-filling presence fitting for the expansive western prairie as her jacket’s fringe sways rhythmically.
While Della’s other sister Dot (Emily Stoken) is only a train ride away, Dot’s life is a world away from Della’s. When the disheveled Della arrives at her door, the posh and polished Dot rings a tinkling bell for her housemaid to bring hot water. Stoken is appropriately restrained and reserved as befits Dot’s character. The living spaces of the two sisters stand in stark contrast. Dot’s stately and sparkingly well-appointed Christmas tree towers over Della’s Charlie Brown-like tree that Jim charitably deems “most original.” When Della reminds Dot she too married for love, Dot immediately dispels that romantic notion, flatly and transparently stating she married for position. O. Henry’s is a world of binaries. One can be poor and in love or well-situated without love. The appeal of cash flow is not lost on Della, at least subconsciously, as she hastily departs from her sister’s house. Brown lets herself display the nuanced tensions of Della’s dilemma – love for her sister versus wanting to put distance between herself and her sister’s opulence before she can question her own fate, now sealed by marriage.
There’s a dual sadness and sweetness to the play’s ending as the young couple sacrifice for each other’s happiness, raising obvious questions about fiscal responsibility in light of economic plight. However, thanks to Penelope Lindblom’s careful direction, she disables easy, snap judgments about the young couple’s fiscal decisions. After all, the desire to please and delight those we love is as natural as the holiday spirit the play easily conjures.
The Gift of the Magi is playing at the Pittsburgh Playhouse through December 17th. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.