A Civil War Christmas
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
December 1, 2012
The Holiday Season is in full swing and audiences seeking an entertaining alternative to that old chestnut A Christmas Carol would do well to head downtown to New York Theater Workshop to catch the New York premiere of Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas. Vogel’s script is a quintessentially American tale. Epic in scope, the story takes place in Washington D.C and surrounding areas on December 24th, 1864. And like A Christmas Carol, the play follows multiple characters from all walks of life throughout the day leading up to Christmas Eve.
Historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, her confidante and seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, conspirators John Wilkes Booth, Mary Surratt, John Surratt, and Lewis Payne and Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant populate Vogel’s world and while they fascinate they do not dominate. Fictional characters like runaway slave Hannah and her little daughter Jessa, Quaker soldier Chester Saunders, former slave turned Union Sergeant Decatur Bronson and his missing wife Rose offer the perfect counterpoint and the most affecting story lines. Incorporating so many different narratives into one play can be a bit overwhelming for the audience initially and while the over all effect was a bit choppy and forced at times it was also quite intriguing to witness the various personal tales unfold and interweave.
A Civil War Christmas is truly an ensemble effort. Each performer narrates and plays several roles and the script is multilayered and complex. Vogel’s theatrical story telling style is alternately very effective and a little bit awkward. There were moments during the play that literally took my breath away by their theatrical beauty and poignancy and at other times I found myself twisting my mind to figure out who was who. Vogel has included period hymns, carols and folk songs to great effect, and supported by live musicians the talented cast performs with pleasing precision.
The simple set by James Shuette is backed by a vast expanse of rustic wooden boards and incorporates several levels and a dozen or so wooden chairs that Director Landau creatively uses to depict various locations. The costumes hung on one side of the stage for easy access by actors also add visual variety and some period atmosphere to the setting. Lighting by Scott Zielinski effectively supports mood and location. Costumes by Toni-Leslie James are suggestive of the period for the most part - but perhaps due to the need to facilitate the performers in their multiple costume changes accurate historic detail is often left by the wayside. This makes sense on the whole, except for the choice of cladding two of the actresses in contemporary blue jeans, which was oddly befuddling. Granted denim existed in 1864 but not in the tight fitting, hip hugging let’s go to the mall style James put on the stage, which took me out of the play every time they made an appearance.
Landau directs with limitless energy and has gathered a flawless ensemble. Casting refreshingly crisscrosses bounderies of gender, race and age. Standouts are Bob Stillman as Abraham Lincoln who exudes humor, wisdom and presidential charm. Alice Ripley contrasts fragility and furor as his unstable wife Mary Todd Lincoln. Karen Kandel beautifully embodies the emotional center of the play as Elizabeith Keckley. Chris Henry is instantly endearing as Chester Saunders. Sean Allan Krill injects welcome humor into every character he plays. K. Todd Freeman brings depth to Sergeant Decatur Bronson and Amber Iman and especially Sumaya Bouhbal steal our hearts as the freedom seeking slaves Hannah and her little girl Jessa. This wonderful cast is rounded out by Rachel Spencer Hewitt, Antwayn Hopper and Jonathan David, who are all effective in multiple supporting roles.
A Civil War Christmas is a huge heartfelt saga richly told, beautifully sung, superbly acted. And In spite of its dark wartime setting, the play is ultimately uplifting. “Sometimes the hope of peace is sweeter than the peace itself”. Endurance of the human spirit through adversity is a universal theme and Vogel and her passionate characters’ message of “peace on earth good will towards men” endures long after the lights have dimmed.