Perhaps you’ve seen the story in the Washington Post about a first-grader who sent a letter to the L.A. County Department of Animal Care and Control asking for permission to keep a unicorn in her backyard if she found one. The department entertained the request and granted her a unicorn license. This holiday season at Silver Spring Stage, a story in a similar spirit is happening with Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus by Jamie Gorski, showing that stories about responding to children’s questions with humanity are timeless.
This play centers on a real-life letter from 100 years ago, when an inquisitive young girl, Virginia O’Hanlon (Maya Hassenplug), wrote to The New York Sun asking if Santa Claus is real. The writer Francis Church (Zachary Singer) took the time and thought to respond. It’s a short and sweet tale about curiosity, innocence, and what to do when you don’t know something: questions that people of all ages face.
Even as Silver Spring Stage undergoes an uncertain few months ahead facing construction issues (which are visible as you enter the theater but not a distraction from the production), this show goes on and uplifts their community. In this staging, director Seth Ghitelman places the story in the ’50s in an environment that exudes a sense of family and home. Transitions move swiftly as classic old-time Christmas tunes provide a spirited soundtrack (sound designed by Jeff Miller). Ghitelman’s poignant staging of the finale places the company behind Virginia and Francis as they all read the actual letter out loud together. The ensemble spirit and the way that it reads a bit like documentary theater make it feel reflective.
Maya Hassenplug plays Virginia with childlike wonder; she’s always enraptured in what she’s doing onstage. She has great natural instincts, a sweet presence, and maturity as she asserts herself and genuinely asks the adults in her life for answers. Zachary Singer as Francis shows excellent physical comedy in his portrayal of a writer being hounded for a good story by his editor, Wallie Gibson, using the full range of his instrument to display his anxiety. (Mikéla Cuffy plays Wallie with poised ferocity, sharp movement, and high stakes, always finding a new way to make Francis stressed.) Singer has a wonderful ability to meet the younger actors where they are as a scene partner. He truly wants to learn from them and considers, “Why do you have to know?” while Virginia asks “Why are people not giving me a straight answer?”
Some of the unhappier responses about Santa’s existence come from Virginia’s sister Samantha, parents, and friend Mary Lou. Samantha (Talia Brin) as the annoyed older sibling is immediately dismissive. Virginia’s mother (Julie Zito) takes the calming approach but is still afraid of telling her the truth. For Mary Lou, played with spunk and attitude by Harper Ruszkowski, her mother’s been laid off from her job and she’s never received a gift from Santa, so she’s lost hope. Mackenzie Ruszkowski plays her younger sickly sister Wendy, with a sweet cough that makes audiences feel for her. Rachel Brightbill plays Mary Lou’s mother with intensity and care.
The best example of creating connections across generations in her inner circle of family and friends is Virginia’s father, played by Andrew Greenleaf. From the naturally played family banter between him and his wife over minor things like getting ham for Christmas dinner, to his careful consideration of Virginia’s desire to write the letter to the Sun, he’s a model father figure. It’s clear that he thinks that the Sun is going to tell her that Santa isn’t real, but entertains the thought because Virginia needs an answer.
The intergenerational Old Christmas Prologue ensemble (Tracye Brewer, Emily Greenleaf, Lark Jeffers, and Helen Cheng Mao) recites a rhymed children’s-book-like prologue, each always using their own voice rather than all trying to act the same, and continues to have a presence through transitions and building out the world for scenes like the soup kitchen. Helen Cheng Mao is a standout, with excellent vocal power and comedic timing as the mail person for Virginia’s letter.
The technical elements add to the interconnectedness of this story. Rose Hull’s costumes have soft tones and look cozy through pieces like classic winter coats. Douglas Becker’s set creates depth, with an open design showing three different settings (the O’Hanlons’ house, the Parkers’ house, and the New York Sun office). The wall for the O’Hanlons’ house has a passageway within that set piece for actors to walk through, making it feel like a real house with more to explore. The fireplace at the corner downstage faces upstage, hinting at the potential of Santa’s presence going down the chimney, which is never shown to the audience. This set relies on lighting with cool yellows, designed by Don Slater, to signify where audiences should focus their attention. The set dressing includes a big Christmas tree for the O’Hanlons, and a smaller tree for the Parkers, helping to further give the context for each family’s situation.
All around, Silver Spring Stage has put on a wonderful production in the spirit of the holidays. Listen and learn from Virginia’s questions: maybe it’ll help with your worries during the holiday season, because it may not be joy and cheer all the time. Sometimes you have to let yourself enjoy art about “childlike faith, poetry, romance to make tolerable this existence,” as Church writes. (And if you’re trying to figure out how to tell your child that Santa doesn’t exist, this play says that maybe let them believe for a little longer.)
Running Time: Approximately 45 minutes with no intermission.
Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus plays through December 18, 2022, at Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD (given the construction in progress, look out for directional signs if you don’t know where to go). Purchase tickets ($13.25–$21.25 including fees) online.
COVID-19 Policy: Silver Spring Stage encourages its patrons and volunteers to keep their COVID-19 vaccinations up to date and requires all audience members to be masked. For more on their COVID-19 policy, please visit their website.
Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus
by Jamie Gorski
Virginia O’Hanlon: Maya Emily Hassenplug
Mother O’Hanlon: Julie Zito
Father O’Hanlon: Andy Greenleaf
Samantha O’Hanlon: Talia Brin
Francis Church: Zachary Singer
Wallie Gibson: Mikéla Cuffy
Mary Lou Parker: Harper Ruszkowski
Wendy Parker: Mackenzie Ruszkowski
Hannah Parker: Rachel Brightbill
Martha/Old Christmas Prologue A: Tracye Brewer
Mail Person/Old Christmas Prologue B: Helen Cheng Mao
Old Christmas Prologue C: Lark Jeffers
Old Christmas Prologue D: Emilyn Greenleaf
Producer and Director: Seth Ghitelman
Stage Manager: Mary Ghitelman
Set Designer, Master Carpenter and Set Decoration: Douglas Becker
Set Construction: Louis Pangaro
Set Painting: Nancy Davis, Tim Frickert, Lark Jeffers, Helen Cheng Mao and Fred Zirm
Lighting Designer: Don Slater
Sound Designer: Jeff Miller
Costume Designer: Rose Hull
Wardrobe Supervisor: Jennifer Morrissey
Hair and Makeup: Sally Cusenza
Properties Designer and Set Dressing: Sandhya K. Kidd
Backstage Managers: Peter Orvetti and Linda Ruzkowski
Artistic Liaison: Fred Zirm
Cover and Poster Art: Leslie Kekuewa
COVID-19 Compliance Officer: Bill Hurlbut