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By JOHN EBY
For Rantoul Press
The Rantoul Theatre Group ushers in the 2012 holiday season with its latest production, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.”
It is a pleasing adaptation of the familiar and well-loved newspaper editorial of the same title.
The well-known column, written in 1897 by Frances Church, was his response to a letter mailed to the New York Sun by 8-year-old, Virginia O’Hanlan.
In the upheaval and uncertainty of the coming new century, Virginia’s request for assurance was prompted by teasing little girl friends and her father’s comment, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.”
This appeal to the newspaper’s authority must have also appealed to Church’s unseen sense of human kindness and community, for he wrote a column like few others he had produced before. It has become his legacy, and understandably a part of many people’s understanding of the spirit of Christmas.
Church’s editorial was adapted into a tender-hearted stage play by Pat Cook in 1999. The simply written plot and endearing characters offer community theater groups a vehicle that’s perfect for production and profit. And, the RTG approaches the play with the right amounts of reverence and humor to produce a charming greeting card to the community.
Audience members will enjoy the talents of veteran RTG actors Karen Hughes, Kevin Renfro, Sam Schieber and Ryan Summers. Joining them onstage, and performing well in their supporting roles, are Chris Wallace, Jace Jamison, Cynthia McEntire, Blake Quinlan, McKenna Sprandel and Morgan Wagner.
Hughes and Renfro as Mama and Papa O’Hanlon are well matched. Papa is a curmudgeon before his time. He’s slightly sour, with the desire to be sweet, but he thinks the world won’t let him. Renfro’s character is given many of the humorous lines in the play, and the actor shows plenty of skill with his comic bits.
Mama manages the house efficiently, offering a kind word or a stern warning to keep husband and daughter behaving properly. Hughes plays the manager, the mother, the friend and budding feminist charmingly.
Sam Shieber, as “Chief,” and Ryan Summers, as Frank Church, are the veteran newspaper publisher and his lead editorial writer. In typical comic style the two men preen and take slightly overblown pride in their work to pull their city out of complacency and expose corruption. Shieber and Summers are engaging in their banter and smooth in their delivery — a pleasure to watch.
Mrs. Marbury is the newspaper’s office manager and secretary. In this version of the story, Virginia’s inquiry may have never been seen or considered by Frank Church if she hadn’t retrieved the letter from “file 13.” With a little sleight of hand and a subtle nudge, Church reconsiders and writes the editorial that the play celebrates.
Chris Wallace plays Mrs. Marbury with the right amount of pluck and persuasiveness for the audience to see who is really in charge of the office and the newspaper’s operation.
Obviously the play’s central character is Virginia. Tuscanny Vandergriff plays the slightly skeptical 8-year-old who challenges herself to find the true spirit of Christmas and asks the newspaper to prove it. Vandergriff does a fine job portraying a character so close to herself.
Most familiar are Virginia’s interactions with her neighbors, Missy and Charly. In typical childish ways, the three girls tease and antagonize and find their way back to friendship, and thereby avoid the threat of Christmas stockings filled with lumps of coal.
McEntire, Quinlan, Jamison, Sawyer, Sprandel and Wagner are well suited to their roles of public figures, a struggling businessman and neighborhood friends. They round out the play’s community, and they complete the acting ensemble nicely.
Director Jessica Holmes has a special connection to Cook’s plays, and translates that into enjoyable ensemble performances, showing off the skills of local actors.
Two nights before opening, this production had some blocking challenges still unmet, a few technical glitches to resolve, and a curtain call that required rehearsal.
The biggest disappointment was the absence of music within the play, when it could have perfectly set the scene or accompanied the emotions. Where there was music, it attempted a certain period style, but brought a somberness to the celebration instead.
The playwright writes a clever bit into the second act about needing to feel “joyful and triumphant,” which should have been the cue for music selection.
None of these issues detracted from the play’s ultimate goal of celebrating the carefully considered and boldly stated column by Church, as the production ends with a ensemble-style reading of the editorial. It’s warm, it’s communal, and his words invoke the joy of the season and a triumphant belief in Santa, who continues “to make glad the heart of childhood.”
The Rantoul Theatre Group’s production of “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” will be performed again at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16 and 17, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19. For ticket information, phone 217-892-1121 or visit their web site www.rtgonline.org .
John Eby is the activities program manager at Parkland College, where he also has taught theater appreciation.