ROADS OF DESTINY: THE O. HENRY STORIES
In Roads of Destiny: The O. Henry Stories, Transient Theatre offers three short stories by turn-of-the-century author William Sydney Porter--better known by his pen name, O. Henry--along with a sentimental portrait of the man himself. Making the best of a cramped situation, set designer Brian Shipinski has transformed the small studio space into a Pullman berth through the simple use of a platform bed and some curtains. Steve Tanner's adaptation of the stories includes Porter's commentary between tales: the author is only slightly surprised to discover an audience of 30 in his berth for one. Charmingly, he offers to autograph any copies of "The Gift of the Magi" we might have handy before settling in to relate a tale or three, interspersed with musings that serve as sketchy autobiography. He is suffering from tuberculosis, and the train speeding him (and presumably us) to New York City will not deliver him alive.
This production, directed by Scot Casey, is a well-acted little piece of whimsy, with the three O. Henry stories--"The Handbook of Hymen," "A Retrieved Reformation," and "The Last Leaf"--seemingly picked at random. There is no real theme to the evening, unless it's Porter's seemingly effortless ability to transform the mundane into the magical in his fiction.
While Porter watches from his berth above one side of the stage, his stories are dramatized in the narrow playing space, which forces a flat staging resembling the illustrations of a storybook. Casey is choosy about his stage pictures though, and the economy of the movement is engaging. The ensemble glide easily from quick poses to full frozen tableaux, trading off the task of narration. It's a little like watching an old magic-lantern show, or thumbing very slowly through a flip book. The actors are warm, polished, and supremely confident in both method and material. The confidence is not misplaced. Porter was a grand storyteller, and Tanner's adaptations are faithful.
"The Handbook of Hymen" describes two gold prospectors snowbound in a cabin who discover the beauty of the written word. Armed with new knowledge, they attempt to woo the same lady, one with statistics, the other with poetry, and anyone who has read O. Henry doesn't need to be told which suitor wins. "A Retrieved Reformation" is the story of a safecracker who goes straight for the sake of love, but whose peculiar skills come in handy in an emergency. The final and most powerful tale, "The Last Leaf," involves a failed artist who manages to paint a small masterpiece to keep a young woman alive.
Tanner shows much reverence for O. Henry's work, but when it comes to the author himself, reverence clouds judgment. Or at least throws some of the troubling facts of Porter's life--such as his 1898 conviction for embezzling from a bank--into sentimental soft focus. The writer is portrayed by George Tafelski as a charming and genial Texan, a gentleman who could never have committed the crime. The real Porter served three deeply traumatic years in prison. Late in his life he was constantly in debt, his first wife died of TB, his second marriage failed, he took advance money for a novel he never wrote, and he drank more as he wrote less. None of this is approached, and while Tanner has him bravely facing his own death by tuberculosis, it is never mentioned that the disease was complicated by advanced cirrhosis of the liver.
These facts might have made for a more interesting portrayal of Porter and provided a contrast to the sentimentality of his stories. Roads of Destiny is, as billed, holiday fare--a sweetly entertaining evening with nothing dark around the edges.