The kids cast in the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus are the best parts of the production, with Lena Slininger's Virginia and the rest of the children lending the proceedings a bright innocence - even when some youths are bullying Virginia about her worn-out shoes - that provides a welcome warmth to the holiday tale. Unfortunately, the kids aren't of central importance in this play that includes one of their names in the title.
Author Andrew Fenady, however, chooses to focus on the struggles of Virginia's father, James O'Hanlon (Chris Zayner), and the journalist who responds to the young girl's letter to The Sun, Frank P. Church (Bill Peiffer). James is an Irish immigrant struggling to find work and support his family, while Frank is an accomplished writer of editorials, and a drunk, who is almost ready to give up on life. Yes, Virginia finds Frank's editor Edward P. Mitchell (David Bailey, who also serves as the show's narrator) assigning Frank the task of responding to Virginia's letter regarding whether Santa is real or not, believing the assignment could restore Frank's joy and purpose in life.
It seems that Fenady's intent with James is to frame Virginia's life experience - to provide reason for why she so desperately needs Santa Claus to be real. But the author doesn't succeed in making that connection, instead leaving it for the audience to guess at. We watch as Zayner (with a spot-on Irish accent, and in his most impressive, least affected portrayal to date) loses his job and faces racial discrimination in the form of name-calling and fists; it's his struggle with which we're called to sympathize, and him for whom we're asked to root. Yet while Zayner's performance makes James' story truly touching, Fenady's focus on the character left me thinking Yes, James, There Is a Santa Claus would have been a more accurate title for his play.
Virginia herself doesn't play much into this story, other than being used to set up a need for new shoes, a belief in Santa, and a letter to The Sun. And while that seems like enough to drive a plot, Virginia being relegated to the sidelines and popping in just enough to make her presence known is a shame, not only because her name is in the title, but because Slininger is so dynamic in the role. Her Virginia is a spunky young girl whose effervescent joy buoys the character beyond her beleaguered life, and I wanted to see more of her during Saturday's performance. I'd actually say the same about every child in the production, among them Gage McCalester's charming Sean, who's Virginia's brother, and Xavier Potts' Newsboy, whose scenes had me all but digging for two pennies with which to buy a paper from his plucky young salesman.
Instead, we're left with James, which isn't so bad, and Frank, whose story, though well rendered by Peiffer in a remarkably emotional turn, is a major downer. (Mourning the loss of his wife, Frank drowns his sorrows while not quite finishing his writing assignments.) At least Donna Weeks' Andrea Borland is on hand, a respectful, confident fellow journalist - one who dons a beautiful period dress and intricate hairstyle with multiple curlicue buns in the back - who serves as a sort of guardian angel to Frank, watching over him and finishing his editorials.
Director Jordan Smith's lethargic pacing is also problematic, and further damaged by the scene changes accompanied by a piercing tune played on handbells piped, rather ineffectively, through the theatre's sound system. There isn't a flow in Yes, Virginia; instead, Smith's production seems to hit a full stop at the end of each segment, lingers in nothingness (excepting the shrill bells) during the scene changes, and then returns to motion as if someone had hit the pause button and then resumed play. With so many scene changes taking place in the first act, the tempo plods plods along painfully until intermission. (Thankfully, there are far fewer scene shifts in the second act.) On Saturday, it felt like Smith prepared each scene individually and then stuck them together one after another, rather than considering how to interweave them.
There is, at least, an effort to add visual interest by changing Bailey's location as he narrates, with Jacque Cohoon's lighting design including an almost angelic spotlight shining on the actor as he speaks from all corners of the stage and, sometimes, from within the audience. I'll give the show an "A" for effort, as there's an obvious attempt on everyone's part to offer the best production of Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus this cast and crew could muster. Any and all weaknesses aren't for a lack of trying, though because of those weaknesses, this production isn't among Playcrafters' best.
Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline) through November 23, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-0330 or visiting Playcrafters.com.