Playwright Harvey Williams gives us a decidedly unconventional Christmas show in “On Shoulders Now,” a new play receiving a rough-around-the-edges world premiere at Just Off Broadway Theatre.
This play is nothing like “A Christmas Carol,” the budget-busting annual production now playing on the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s main stage, but the two shows do share a few common traits. “One Shoulders Now” manages the neat trick of being hard-edged and sentimental at the same time. And so does “A Christmas Carol” with its juxtaposition of wretched poverty in Victorian England with the transformation of money-hoarding Ebenezer Scrooge into a compassionate, empathetic benefactor.
Williams’ play is similar in the sense that it focuses on marginalized people — the homeless, ex-prostitutes, immigrants — who manage to find a bit of grace on Christmas Day, even those living on borrowed time.
Desmond “3-3-7” Jones plays Vernon, a sometimes-homeless odd-jobber, who introduces us to the world of the play and also has the last word before it’s all said and done. Vernon is a bittersweet character and Jones delivers an inventive, quirky, often funny performance that is ultimately quite poignant.
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As the story unfolds, Vernon and Eddie (Theodore “Priest” Hughes) decide to help a couple of homeless people — the pregnant Noi (Cydia White), a Jamaican immigrant without papers, and Levon (Curtis Smith), a transplant from rural Iowa. They have been evicted and literally have no place to go. Eddie and Vernon take them back to an apartment shared by Lacy (Elizabeth A. Hillman), Carmen (Rebecca Munoz) and Shanel (Yasmeen Wilcox) where the guys occasionally crash. The women are ex-prostitutes who are now on a mission to get their former colleagues off the streets.
The apartment is rented in Lacy’s name and she reluctantly agrees to let the couple stay temporarily. Williams draws certain parallels between events in the play and the original Christmas story. The ex-hookers are stand-ins for the Magi, and Noi even gives birth to a daughter she names Christine. That sounds obvious, but Williams manages to do it with a fair amount of wit.
Like other KC MeltingPot shows, this one reflects a minimal investment in the physical production, and the quality of the performances vary. Perhaps because Williams is more comfortable writing male characters, the most successful scenes are those in which Eddie, Vernon and Levon try to keep warm over a fire in a steel barrel and share a half-empty bottle of whiskey. The performances are relaxed, natural and believable as back-stories emerge.
The scenes with the women, on the other hand, often feel forced. Hillman as a reformed prostitute fails to convince. Wilcox plays more attitude than honest emotion as Shanel. Munoz demonstrates some sharp comic timing as Carmen and White brings quiet dignity to the role of Noi.
The plot gets overly complicated, and Williams’ manipulation of the characters are transparent, but this show is worth our time and attention. I hope Williams keeps working on it. It may be flawed, but it gets down to the essence of what Christianity means. That’s worth contemplating, even for nonbelievers and cynical critics.