DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – The setup: “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?”
That’s a real letter to a New York City newspaper. From 1897. The response (see the end of this review) is famous. Included is the catchy line, “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
That line is the title of a play, a family drama that Evergreen Productions leaps into whole heartedly. Eight more performances continue to Dec. 19 in Webb Theatre of Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts at St. Norbert College.
Many youngsters attended Saturday night’s performance with their parents. The kids skipped in and squirmed in their seats until the play started. Then they locked into the action, which includes youth. Plays work magic with kids. Afterward, the kids skipped out, stopping just outside the theater door to receive a cookie “baked by Mrs. Goldstein,” the name of a character in the play who’s portrayed by the troupe president. If the kids take the printed programs home, they can color the picture of Santa on the cover.
The play has more to it than one might expect.
Virginia O’Hanlon’s family is struggling. Her father, James, is without a job in part because of bias against the Irish at the time. He is baited into a fistfight that is depicted. (The production has a fight choreographer). James reads The Sun, though the copies are stinky from having been left in a trash barrel.
The writer of the editorial “Is There a Santa Claus?” is an unlikely source. Frank P. Church is a hardened newspaperman known for cynicism. In this story, his wife and child have died during birth within the past year, and he has turned to drink big time. He slugs a lippy guy in a tavern one day.
In artistic license, Frank Church’s boss tells about the plights of the O’Hanlon family and Frank and weaves them together. Edward P. Mitchell also colors the atmosphere of a newsroom with clackety-clack typewriters and tells of major happenings in the world. Mostly, he represents kindness and wisdom.
This play fits Evergreen Productions’ specialty – being a theater group for youth and adults. The cast for this is mixed age, with some double-casting for more opportunities for youth.
The youngsters are part of the depiction of life’s realities in 1897 New York City. Again, this is a drama. “Santa” perhaps signals “cute,” but playwright Andrew J. Fenady tosses grit into the happenings.
Director Tricia Adams and her team keep the play bustling on a multi-location stage that ranges from a cemetery to a trashy alley to a homey home to a boozy bar.
As Edward Mitchell, the boss, Steve Oswald solidly guides the storytelling, puffing a stage cigar (fake smoke and all) all the way.
Norm Shonkwiler clearly carries the load of Frank Church, the dark cloud of grief weighing on Frank.
Lucas Brunette portrays the challenged yet buoyant father nicely and surely, including with an Irish accent. (This production has a dialect coach, too).
The company gives off a sense that it knows it is telling about something famous – and there is fun and motivation in that. The production is interesting and full of eagerness.
I like the need-for-news part, having been in a newsroom filled with clackity-clack typewriters, ringing telephones, cigarette smoke and a need to tell a story correctly. Yes Virginia, there were, and are, such places of truth.
Running time: One hour, 35 minutes
Remaining performances: 2 p.m. Dec. 5; 7 p.m. Dec. 10-11; 2 p.m. Dec. 12; 7 p.m. Dec. 16-18; 2 p.m. Dec. 19
Note: Masks required of audience members in keeping with COVID-19 protocols of St. Norbert College
Creative: Playwright – Andrew J. Fenady; director – Tricia Adams; assistant director – Jason Pries; stage manager – Megan Sielski; assistant stage manager – Kati Long; costume designer – Cyndee Wilson; hair and make-up assistant – Olivia Martinson, Jen Foster, Victoria Stevenson; prop designer – Gretchen Mattingly; lighting designer – Jack Rhyner; production coordinator – Tammy Brunette; set designer – Curt Christnot; set dresser – Tricia Adams; sound designer – Tony Brunette; fight choreography – Curt Christnot; dialect coach – Alan Kopischke
Cast (*Dec. 4, 10, 12, 17, 19. ^Dec. 3, 5, 11, 16, 18)
Edward P. Mitchell – Steve Oswald
Frank P. Church – Norm Shonkwiler
James O’Hanlon – Lucas Brunette
Dominic (Dom) Donneli, Officer Blake, Husband – Jesse Cotherman
Virginia O’Hanlon – Darcin Wright* Carley Suda^
Maria Donneli – Mariana Mandich* Mozelle Mandich^
Julie – Emma Strong* Abby Foster^
Susan – Aleda Peters* Sophia Mykhaylyuk^
Sean O’Hanlon – Ian Lemke* Oliver Hasseler^
Evie O’Hanlon – Annika Pries* Kayla Fuller
Andrea Borland – Sarah Jane Peters
Teddy Murray – Astrou Gartzke
Mrs. Goldstein – Dawn Byrne
Celeste Donneli/wife – Becky Wright
Newsboy – Aleda Peters
Cornelius Barrington, Chambers, Pryor – Darby Kern
Shannon, Blind Man, Shorty, Thief – Bob Hileman
Schuller, Sgt. Flynn, Old Man – Jason Pries
Otho, Officer Akins, Fritz – Paul Goska
Red, George, Scrawny Worker – Toby Deterville
Lost Boy – Owen Wright
Goss, O’Hara, Sam, Scotty, Park Attendant – Jessica Goska
Ensemble – Owen Wright, Carley Suda* Darcin Wright^ Mozelle Mandich* Mariana Mandich^ Aleda Peters^ Sophia Mykhaylyuk* Abby Foster* Emma Strong^ Oliver Hasseler* Ian Lemke^ Kayla Fuller* Annika Pries^
NEXT: (Young Actors): “The Giver” by Lois Lowry adapted by Eric Coble, Feb. 11-13. (Mainstage): “Fly Babies” by Rusty Harding, Feb. 18-20, 24-27.
THE VENUE: The 190-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The space has an amphitheater feel with its sloped seating area. The stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.
THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee of the airline. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had many friends in the greater Green Bay community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.
The response to Virginia O’Hanlon
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.