Surprisingly enough, director Philip Hays has never seen the 1947 classic movie starring Maureen O'Hara, Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn, and when A. D. Players offered him a chance to direct a stage version of Miracle on 34th Street, he decided not to change that.
"I wanted our take on it to be fresh and not a rehash," he explains. Not that he was totally unaware of the movie — certainly thanks to popular culture he knew generally what it was about.
What surprised him, though, when he sat down to read the script based upon the novella of the same name by Valentine Davies, was that it was somewhat different from the "sweet and charming and maybe a little bit safe" story that he imagined it was.
Doris Walker, the single mother of young Susan, works for Macy's in New York City. As a result of the hard knocks she's had in her life, she discourages any fantasies on the part of her daughter. Enter Kris Kringle who volunteers to take on the Santa job in the Thanksgiving Day Parade when the original Santa comes in drunk. He does so well he's given the Santa job at Macy's main store.
Thing is, Kris says he really is Santa. This sets in motions a series of events that ends up in a courtroom, with the young lawyer Fred Gailey who is attracted to Doris defending Kris who has been committed to Bellvue Hospital.
"What I found is a story about a city and some people particularly Doris and Susan whose hearts are a little harder than they ought to be. And the way that Kris sort of awakens that spirit of imagination and joy and giving belief in them is something that I was surprised to find how touching that was. These characters go on a real journey."
It also intrigued him, he says, that the character of Kris Kringle, the man who says he's the real Santa, remains an enigma through the end. "Something that we're trying to do to honor the text is really keep the question in the air of who he is. He obviously purports to be an ambassador for the Christmas spirit and he does a good job of doing that. But is he really who he says he is is really an open question for much of the story. I thought that was refreshing too, that it's not a presupposed ending."
The 18-member cast for the two-act play has 13 adults and five children in it, he says. The script offers are options to move the play into present day, he says, but they decided to keep it in the original 1947 with the kinds of clothes people of that time would wear.
"Obviously it’s a modern classic and it has all the good nostalgic feelings associated with that," Hays says. "But it also has a lot to say about the time we live in now. The message about the Christmas spirit and the power of believing in something and how it can transform people is one that is as relevant today as it was back then."
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Asked about how he's been approaching rehearsals with the Miracle actors, Hays says: "I think for me the big thing is the emotional truth of these characters. Because it has this nostalgic sheen to it, the trap is for it just to be simple or cute or safe. I think the story deserves better than that because it is about real people and the transformation in their hearts.
"What is it like for a woman who’s a single mother in 1947 to have an important position at Macy's and what is like for her there? What is it like for a lawyer who has not yet proven himself to stand up in court and try to defend the existence of Santa Claus? We're looking for the honesty of those moments.
"I believe the show is a lot of fun and something that I hope will affect people in a deeper way than 'I saw a nice show,' feeling that a little miracle happened for them as well. A reminder that it's not just about buying things and consumerism, and the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season. But that the Christmas spirit is about believing and how that can change you. And taking a risk for what you believe in."
Miracle on 34th Street opens on November 28 (preview on November 27) and continues through December 22 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the George Theater, 5420 Westheimer. For information, call 713-526-2721 or visit adplayers.org. $25-$75.