Warning to parents with impressionable children: Good Ol’ Saint Nick will not be appearing in “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus,” at least not embodied in human form. Now, the spirit of what Santa Claus means, that’s another matter.
This special Christmas show, a collaboration between Ojai ACT and the Ojai Performing Arts Theater Foundation (OPAT), brings a holiday tale about finding the Christmas Spirit in a hardscrabble existence.
The history of “Yes, Virginia” goes back to 1897, when the eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asked her father this common question. The father, out of work and down on his luck, and most probably tired of being asked why the sky is blue, told his daughter to write to the New York Sun, because “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.” And she did. The letter, a facsimile which is available on the Internet, got assigned to seasoned war correspondent Francis Pharcellus Church, who was a bit of an alcoholic, but game to not just make an eight-year-old’s day, but to examine the philosophical underpinnings of Santa Claus. The editorial has been reprinted on and off to this day, but when O’Hanlon died in 1971, the machine really kicked in. There was a children’s book. Then there was an animated special in 1974. And in 1991, there was a television movie made, starring Richard Thomas and Charles Bronson.
Which brings us to this play, which is a Southern California premiere. The writer of the television play, Andrew J. Fenady, adapted it into this theatrical version (and also a radio version, for those interested). Mr. Fenady has a long resume in television and film going back to “Chisholm” with John Wayne and other westerns.
Ojai resident Brossy Reina directs this four-week run, and worked on the original television movie as well, and that’s how he brought the work to Ojai. (Mr. Reina and Mr. Fenady will host a Q-and-A after the Dec. 8 performance).
The play stars Sophie Rose Massey as Virginia, David Rogge and Chelsea Vivian as her parents, Frank Malle as Church, and Sierra Taylor and Bill Spellman as his fellow newspaper workers.
Mr. Reina’s play direction moves back and forth between Church and the O’Hanlon family, set in a time of discrimination against Irish immigrants and of mass unemployment. (Hence the topicality.)
“The play is about doing the right thing and being ethical and helping others,” John Hankins, Ojai ACT’s publicity head explains.
Though the play revolves around Virginia’s letter, it is for adults, with themes of discrimination, poverty, and alcoholism, Mr. Hankins notes.
Mr. Reina, in his notes about the play, says he hopes “that the words appearing on the front page of the New York Sun more than 114 years ago, reprinted thousands of times, in hundreds of languages, will inspire in you the true meaning of the holiday season.”
YES VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS
When: Tonight through Dec. 16, 7:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
Where: Ojai Art Center, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai
Information: 640-8797 and ojaiact.org