Is Santa Claus real? Lakewood Playhouse seeks answer with ‘Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”

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One of the most-read editorials in the English language is Edward P. Church’s answer to eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon on the question of whether or not Santa Claus exists. Penned in 1897 for a Christmas edition of the New York Sun, the editorial is a perennial favorite.

The story of how the editorial came to be written is told in Andrew J. Fenady’s 1998 play “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” which is Lakewood Playhouse’s holiday show and the second main stage show of that venerable theater’s 80th season. The play is directed by Aaron Mohs-Hale.

The play blends the story of newspaperman Frank Church – who is on a downward spiral after the loss of wife and child – with the struggle of a down-and-out, Irish-American family living in turn-of-the-last-century New York City.

Much of the story is fictionalized. In reality, Virginia’s father, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, was a coroner’s assistant on Manhattan’s Upper Westside, not a brawling Irishman trying to fend for his family. He did, however, make the fabled epic punt, and told Virginia to write a letter to the Sun when she confronted him with the uncomfortable question of whether or not Santa Claus exists. The Fenady version of the story makes the impoverished O’Hanlon family more like the Cratchit family in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

Lakewood Playhouse managing artistic director John Munn compared the play to “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “It goes to some dark places,” he noted, just before the show began.

The two stories, and the way that they intertwine via the agency of Edward P. Mitchell (Tom Birkeland), make for compelling viewing. The play also benefits from Andrew Redford’s set – a realistic brick wall that lends the setting an urban feel – and Virginia Yanoff’s costumes.

Birkeland has the look for his role as the wise, old man of the world – Edward P. Mitchell, editor in chief of the Sun. The role has a dual function: narrator of the story and character in scenes involving the newspaper. After a rocky start, Birkeland found his footing as the amiable, cigar-puffing narrator. Birkeland gives the character the cozy quality of a Mark Twain reenactment.

Parker Dean also looks the part as Frank Church, the bereaved newsman that has lost his will to live and is becoming mired in alcohol and self-pity after a tragic loss.

Kayla R. Crawford is a stalwart actress with a stately presence. She looks the part of the steadfast, Irish-American housewife. At times, however, she seemed hesitant with some of her lines and some of her pronunciation was too careful to appear spontaneous.

Christine Choate, as Andrea Borland, the rare female reporter who looks after Frank, was especially good, turning in the best performance of the show.

As the character Virginia, Norah Francis Gawryczik, had a great deal of weight on her small shoulders. A microphone was used to ensure that her voice could be heard clearly, since it is her questions that propel the story. She does a magnificent job in what is her first role outside of acting classes.

I’m of two minds regarding the way that the play is broken up into a multitude of mini-scenes. On the one hand, this keeps interest high, since no one scene runs long enough to grow stale. On the other hand, it creates a choppy feel to the production because it requires a dimming of the lights and shifting of furniture for every single scene change.

I hate to write a bad review or denigrate the efforts of community members that have given of their time and energy to create live theater, but I have to note that this Lakewood Playhouse production falls short of the mark. Much as I would like to, I can’t function as a cheerleader who puts a positive spin on every show. A number of flaws kept the story from really coming to life before the eyes of the audience.

The need to place a microphone on Gawryczik meant that anyone in her vicinity spoke with an amplified voice, while actors further away spoke normally. This caused peculiar sound effects, with some characters amplified some of the time and others not.

Several of the actors lost their lines in the midst of the play and were not able to adlib. One announced aloud “I’m completely lost.”

Edward Medina’s portrayal of Virginia’s father James O’Hanlon – a key role – seemed devoid of emotional content. He was unable to put energy into the character, coming across as robotic. The effect seemed to rub off on other actors that became low key in their scenes with him.

This is a good story and it gets off the beaten path of the usual Charles Dickens fare, but Lakewood Playhouse falls a little short of the mark here.

“Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” runs through Dec. 16. For scheduling information, tickets and all else, visit www.lakewoodplayhouse.org.

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