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Answering the childhood question that rolls around at the holidays

Brynn Kennedy is fateful letter-writer Virginia O’Hanlon in the Elora Community Theatre production of Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus. [Submitted]

Get into the Christmas spirit with a fresh retelling of a classic tale inspired by real events in Elora Community Theatre’s lastest offering.

The story of “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” is set in New York City 1897, where a family of Irish immigrants do their best to carve out a new home and future for themselves. The youngest of the family, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, writes in to one of the city’s leading newspapers, the New York Sun, to ask whether or not Santa Claus really existed. She wondered and wrote:

“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 editor, Ed Mitchell, gives the assignment of answering Virginia’s question to Frank P. Church, who, until he lost his wife and child last Christmas Eve, was the Sun’s best and most dependable reporter.

Church crafted a heartfelt response – uncharacteristic of his usual cynical style – that continues to resonate with readers more than a century later, and became the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the English language. The work inspired an Emmy Award-winning television special, an idiomatic expression, and a Virginia O’Hanlon Scholarship fund at a New York private school.

The two compelling stories of Church and O’Hanlon parallel one another – Frank deals with the loss of his family, while Virginia’s father struggles to find employment. But “it all comes together at the end,” according to director Deb Stanson.

“It’s a great way to start the holiday season … the play will make you feel good [even] once you leave,” said Stanson. “It’s about all the right things about Christmas, about giving, sharing, good friends, family, and all of those wonderful attributes that I think are a terrific part of Christmas.”

A large cast of more than 30 actors – both familiar faces and new – has been assembled for the performance. There are 12 child actors, including the talented Brynn Kennedy who will be taking on the role of Virginia. Gary Seibert plays the Sun’s editor, Edward P. Mitchell, while the experienced Bart Penwarden will be journalist Frank P. Church. Santa Claus himself will even make an appearance, played by Norm Walters. Watch for a special late addition to the lineup, as well.

“There’s this little kitten that comes to all of our rehearsals. He’s hilarious. He sits there so calmly and he watches,” added Stanson. “It’s written right into the script. We didn’t want to use a fake cat, so my stage manager has this new kitten who is the most composed cat I’ve ever seen. He’s part of the cast … his name is Murdoch.”

Live music is featured in the show. Deva Neely will play the dual role of Evie O’Hanlon as well as the productions’ artistic director. She recently acted as musical director in KW Musical Productions’ Titanic the Musical, which ran at St. Jacobs Country Playhouse earlier in the year.

“Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus” is family friendly and is classified as a straight play instead of a musical, meaning that the drama will unfold through character conversations. This contrasts to a musical, which refers to a play that tells that story through music and/or dance numbers. The script was penned by Andrew J. Fenady, and first published in 1998.

Tickets are on sale now at the Fergus Grand Theatre box office at  519-787-1981 or online. Show times are: December 13 and 20 at 8 p.m., December 14 and 21 at  2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and  December 15 and 22 at 2 p.m.

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