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Sentimental Journey

Cal Rep's 'O. Henry Christmas' Captures Charm of Yesteryear

December 19, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In a world growing ever more cynical, the sentimentality of the holiday season still appeals to audiences. Even watered-down versions of "A Christmas Carol"--a sort of Dickens Lite--draw families into theaters. Maybe that's why Howard Burman's adaptation of several of O. Henry's holiday-flavored short stories is so appealing.

O. Henry looked at life through glasses that saw the real lives of ordinary people. When sentiment does pop up in his work, it's in spite of that human condition, not because of it. That also describes the forthright direction of Joanne Gordon in her staging of "An O. Henry Christmas" at Cal Rep on the Long Beach State campus. In what has already become a Christmas tradition at Cal Rep, the show continues to delight and charm.

It is a cold December in New York's underbelly, and its homeless denizens warm themselves at a trash-can fire, looking forward to little nourishment, much less holiday bounty. Suddenly they are joined by a figure known only as O.P., wanted by the police as an embezzler escaped from Ohio Penitentiary. He convinces the lowlifes that they will be warmed and nourished by the stories he will conjure for them. It's better than nothing, they admit.

Of course, there is "The Gift of the Magi." There are several other familiar and not-so-familiar tales spun by O.P., and in each he involves his acquaintances to play the characters as the tales unfold. Only at the end does the local policeman divulge the name of the man he is seeking. He is William Sidney Porter, who of course became famous under his pen name of O. Henry. Porter decides to return to Ohio, to a sick wife and the remainder of his prison term, but he has given his humble friends a Christmas present worth more than they realize.

The show is a nifty gift for its audiences too. Although the tone of Gordon's staging changes slightly with changes of personnel each year, its heart is always intact. This year it's a bit more cheery, not as dark as it sometimes has been.

April Hall is a touchingly young Marguerite (from "The Last Leaf"), whose imminent death is stayed not only by the persistence of the final leaf of ivy on the wall, but also by the hope inherent in O.P.'s stories. Jennifer Fowler is very strong as her friend and mentor Agnes. The core of the performance is Hal, a born clown, who takes numerous roles in the stories, and this year Hal is well-served by the performance of Matt Southwell, whose expert timing and gentleness nicely feed his various incarnations.

The whole cast is in tune with the script. Baron Kelly is affectingly real, with his street-born tics, as the down-and-out painter who makes sure Marguerite's ivy leaf never falls. Ron Lindblom's dour patina as Grover, the distraught former doctor, works well.

As raunchy pickpocket Fran, Deanna Boyd shines brightly with her insistent, rollicking humor. Michael A. Pando is as warm as most cops were in those days.

As O.P., founder of this literary feast, Jeff Paul paints an intelligent portrait of Porter before he became famous.

* "An O. Henry Christmas," Cal Rep Theatre, Cal State Long Beach, 7th Street and West Campus Drive. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 6 p.m.; Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Sat. & Sun. matinees, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 21. $15. (310) 985-7000. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Jennifer Fowler (alternating with Susan Watson): Agnes

April Hall (alternating with Jennifer Fowler): Marguerite

Baron Kelly: Dinty

Matt Southwell: Hal

Ron Lindblom: Grover

Deanna Boyd: Fran

Michael A. Pando: Paddy

Jeff Paul: O.P.

A California Repertory production of Howard Burman's adaptation of O. Henry's Christmas stories. Directed by Joanne Gordon. Scenic design: Lisa Hashimoto. Lighting design: Darla Davis. Costume design: Roxana Munoz, Patricia Nanez. Sound design: Mark Abel. Stage manager: Samantha Dodds.

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