Yes, Svetlana, There Is A Grandfather Frost
In 1897, newsman Francis Pharcellus Church wrote an editorial in response to a letter received from 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon asking whether Santa Claus was real, because her friends had told her he didn’t exist. Church’s response, now one of the most famous pieces of journalism extant, has become an indelible part of Christmas. Jeff Goode has turned a bit of Russian history into a warm-hearted homage to Church’s defense.
In the 1950s, the new Soviet Union set about destroying the legend of Christmas and Father Christmas by moving the celebration to New Year’s, reviving a mythical tale of Grandfather Frost, thus removing the ill-disposed German Christmas influence from the new order. Goode’s story is set in an urban newspaper office presided over by the severe Madame Editrix (Erika Godwin). Her secretary, the incurably optimistic Devuchka (Lisa Younger), is preparing for the holiday. When an official news account, sent by the government, details injuries suffered by people protesting at a rally that has not yet occurred, two newsmen—Zloveschii (Tyler Rhoades) and Tserkov (Morry Schorr)—debate truth versus propaganda and repression.
Younger’s naive and playful portrayal is a delightful addition to the production. It provides an amusing contrast to the more serious political argument. Godwin’s transformation from formal and unsentimental to kind and humane also enhances the overall message of the play. Schorr and Rhoades turn in believable performances as they challenge right versus wrong. Bob Rusch and director Gideon Potter also delight as two menacing Russian agents of the regime. Potter’s directorial touch easily captures the humor of the play’s predicament as well as the sentimentality inherent in the holiday season.
Tserkov’s concluding letter at play’s end to little Svetlana, echoing Church’s famous one, affirms faith, love, and childhood’s delight and could make Goode’s play a staple offering during many future Christmas seasons. This cast certainly gives it a heartfelt interpretation.
Presented by SkyPilot Theatre Company at the Luna Playhouse, 3706 San Fernando Rd., Glendale. Nov. 13–Dec. 19. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. www.skypilottheatre.com.
Joining forces with Glendale’s Luna Playhouse, SkyPilot Theatre Company currently offers the West Coast premiere of Jeff Goode’s “Yes Svetlana, There is a Grandfather Frost.” Having been named the Luna’s resident company, director Gideon Potter and his top-notch ensemble have elevated the bar when it comes to quality in small-venue theater. Only the most cynical of viewers would leave untouched by the myriad messages contained in this charmingly constructed story.
Set in 1950, a group of Soviet newspaper employees are forced to choose between ethics and personal survival when they uncover a pre-ordained attack on a group of Christmas worshipers by Stalin’s oppressive regime. Constantly censored by the “Party,” the journalists are confronted by a local Security Committee member and his physically imposing support thug.
Its set against the backdrop of a letter from a young girl asking whether Grandfather Frost, the Party’s nonreligious alternative to St. Nickolas, actually exists. Obviously the correlation to the 1897 New York Sun editorial titled “Is There a Santa Claus?” inspired by 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon was an intentional stepping-off point for Goode’s story.
Godwin’s second-act transformation is truly touching as her hope for a better future is rekindled through a simple act of kindness. As the paper’s primary correspondents, Morry Schorr and Tyler Rhoades represent the past and future of the Russian people.
Rhoades is excellent as Zloveschii, a womanizing scamp whose desire to cover his own tracks doesn’t quite work out the way he had hoped. Schorr’s portrayal of Tserkov, the veteran of the group, who experienced the Bolshevik Revolution as a child including Grandfather Frost’s “birth” or rather imposition on the children of the U.S.S.R., is superb. As the villains in the story, Ken Lyle and Bob Rusch make a perfect team as Comrades Bolyshoi and Shiroky. Relying on subtlety and the smallest of glances, inferences and unspoken threats, this gifted duo infuse a palpable sense of fear into the proceedings.
Although the perfectly chosen costuming is uncredited, Potter himself has designed a sparsely appointed office set lit with exquisite detail by Azad Abed-Stephen. Particularly effective is Schorr’s emotional dictation answering Svetlana’s query on a darkened stage illuminated by only a tiny onstage desk lamp. It’s a poignant conclusion to this riveting production.
Dink O’Neal, an actor and member of the American Theatre Critics Assn., resides in Burbank.
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