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The O'Hanlon family members are (front, from left) Willa Nagel as Virginia and Rhett Waller as Sean; (back) Jesse Stewart as James and Jacqueline West as Evie.
The O'Hanlon family members are (front, from left) Willa Nagel as Virginia and Rhett Waller as Sean; (back) Jesse Stewart as James and Jacqueline West as Evie.

"Yes, Virginia" tells the rest of the story

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arts and entertainment Red Wing, 55066

Red Wing Minnesota 2760 North Service Drive / P.O. Box 15 55066

Everyone knows about the little girl who wrote a letter to the newspaper asking a question most parents do their best to avoid answering: "Is there a Santa Claus?"

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Although it's been well over a century since the letter and the famous response were published in the New York Sun, the editor's answer has not only been remembered, but is the most frequently reprinted editorial in the history of U.S. journalism.

His words are at the heart of Phoenix Theatre's holiday production, "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," which will be performed Dec. 8-11 at the Sheldon Theatre.

Val DeCrow and Andrew J. Fenady wrote the stage show, which tells the rest of the story.

"It's based on actual events," Director Min MartinOakes explained. The play not only tells the story of spunky little 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon, who questions Santa's existence, but also the story of the newspaperman whose life is changed when he is assigned to come up with an answer.

Francis Pharcellus Church was an editorial writer at the Sun specializing in religious and controversial issues. He had experienced tragedy in his life, she said. A correspondent during the Civil War, he had seen great suffering and lost faith in almost everything -- including his work.

"Answering this child's letter helps him get his life back on track," MartinOakes said. The editorial response, which also restores Virginia's faith in Santa, was published anonymously; Church was not publicly identified as the author until after his death in 1906.

Willa Nagel and John Anderson are cast in those lead roles.

Though she's only 11 years old, Willa has been in a few productions, playing mostly smaller roles.

"She is capable and she is absolutely delightful to work with," MartinOakes said. The play has "lots of kids" in the cast, she added.

Anderson is a familiar face on the Sheldon stage, having appeared most recently in the spring production of "Morning's at Seven." He also has been in Soapbox Players shows.

Playing her parents are Jesse Stewart and Jacqueline West. Rhett Waller, who was Tiny Tim in last year's "A Christmas Carol," appears as Virginia's brother, Sean.

Erin Leni Skolte plays Andrea Borland, a female reporter at the Sun, and newspaper editor Edward Mitchell will be played by David Oakes. He also will narrate the production.

The play is not a musical, but uses music for transition and emphasis. In addition to her acting role, West provides piano accompaniment when a "church choir" sings some holiday songs. There also are Christmas carolers.

Since the story took place in 1897, the costumes are a colorful addition to the production, MartinOakes noted. "Costumes are amazing," she said. Sara Shannon, who also did costumes for "Morning's at Seven" and has worked with the Sheldon School of the Performing Arts, is in charge.

The heartwarming nature of the play makes it suitable family fare, according to the Sheldon Theatre.

"I love the message of the show," MartinOakes said. "People will see a number of things that parallel struggles in our world today. It's really kind of remarkable."

Tickets are $18 for adults, $11 for students. Contact the Sheldon at 651-388-8700 or 800-866-5759 or go online at www.sheldontheatre.org.

Large cast helps tell Christmas story

The cast of "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus" follows:

Willa Nagel as Virginia O'Hanlon; Rhett Waller as her brother, Sean; Jesse Stewart and Jacqueline West as her parents, James and Evie.

John Anderson as writer Francis "Frank" Church; David Oakes as editor Edward Mitchell; Erin Leni Skolte as reporter Andrea Borland.

Kevin Funk and Nan Kafka as the O'Hanlon's friends, Dominic and Celeste Donelli, and Jessica Scheerer as their daughter Maria, Virginia's best friend.

Cate Zenzen as Julie; Kate Gadient as Susan; Alec Pflueger as Tom Pryor and police officer; Steve Jorstad as O'Hara; Mark Sandstrom as Chambers, Mr. Barrington and Thief; Leila Hussain as Teddy Murray and Dock Worker; Sandi Nelson as Mrs. Goldstein; Lexi Christianson as police officer; Caleb Overlander as Goss, Scotty and Dock Worker; Dan Dickerson as Newsboy and Dock Worker; Peter von Haaren as Mr. Schullere.

Emma Corey, Ella Sutherland, Madeline Sutherland, Rebecca Alpers, Brooke Nystuen and Haley Pritchard as Virginia's friends; Claire Baker and Alec Pflueger as mom and dad with baby.

The church choir will consist of Cate Zenzen, Kate Gadient, Dan Dickerson, Madeline Sutherland, Haley Pritchard, Brooke Nystuen, Rebecca Alpers, Paige Patterson, Peter von Haaren, Lexi Christianson, Sara Hoffman, LaVirgne Dickerson and Judy Kizer (choir director),

Christmas carolers will be the Donelli family, Emma Corey, Claire Baker, Ella Sutherland, Dana Seamans, Kira Dickenson, Anna Pritchard and Amanda Williams.

If you go...

What: "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus"

Who: Phoenix Theatre

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 8-10, 2 p.m. Dec. 11

Where: Sheldon Theatre

How much: $18 adults $18, $11 students

More info: www.sheldontheatre.org, 651-388-8700 or 800-866-5759

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