In 1897, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun newspaper. “Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?”
The Sun’s front-page editorial response, penned by reporter Frank P. Church, has become the stuff of legend. “Virginia, your little friends are wrong.” Church goes on to vigorously defend the power of faith and the unknowability of the universe, concluding, “Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.”
It was perhaps inevitable that the story would enter the Christmas pantheon. A 1991 TV movie adaptation starred Charles Bronson and cemented the story in the popular folklore, while screenwriter Andrew Fenady later adapted his script for the stage. Though the production occasionally goes overboard on the schmaltz factor, the cast and crew have produced a charming, visually rich production perfectly timed for the holidays.
Frank Malle as Church and John Rogge as James O’Hanlon form the play’s moral center, as well as offering the show’s strongest performances. Fenady’s script has fleshed out the historical tale, adding a subplot in which Church’s wife and baby have recently died, turning the veteran newspaperman to drink. Malle brings credible dissolution to a man struggling to rediscover his faith, while allowing us flashes of the nerve, wit and humor that once made him great.
As the head of an Irish immigrant family scratching out a living in New York City, O’Hanlon struggles to find work and agonizes over the prospect of a Christmas without presents. Rogge’s blue-collar hustle plays spot-on (and he does a mean Irish accent), but his performance flags in the second half. At one performance, by the time Virginia discovers a mysterious present under the tree, he offers a nonchalant (and inadvertently hilarious) shrug.
In the newsroom, Bill Spellman excels as Edward P. Mitchell, the gruff Sun editor who also narrates the story. As Church’s ambitious colleague Andrea Borland, Sierra Taylor shows potential but settles into an inhibited performance that lacks the verve and gumption we expect from the staff’s only female reporter. Chelsea Vivian, as Virginia’s saintly mother, creates as much depth as possible with a one-dimensional part. Virginia herself, played by fourth-grader Sophie Massey, brings an incandescent sweetness to the stage.
With its frequent scene changes and short vignettes, the script is clearly derived from a teleplay, but set designer Neva Williams does excellent work, thoroughly and efficiently evoking an array of distinct settings, including the O’Hanlons’ impoverished apartment, Church’s bare bachelor pad, a bustling newsroom and a flea-bitten alley. Touches of realism — matches, typewriters, even a live animal onstage — enhance the verisimilitude. Costumers Pam Phillips and Debbie Perry juggle a large cast and still capture a turn-of-the-century Americana that somehow never feels forced.
The play is unabashedly earnest, but Church and James O’Hanlon’s desperation seems all too fitting for a country still faltering through hard times. It may be too much to hope we’ll see another generous gesture like Church’s anytime soon, but this show offers a soothing respite for those needing salve and salvation for the holidays.
Yes, Virginia, through Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. Ojai Art Center Theater, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai, (805) 640-8797, www.ojaiact.org.