With A Civil War Christmas, playwright Paula Vogel affectingly achieves her ambitious goal to create an American, non-Anglo worshipping Christmas Carol. There are no figgy puddings, Cratchits or Scrooges, and dancing sugarplums. The halls are barely decked but there are plenty of ghosts.
Instead, this gleamingly plain production, brought keenly to life by director Rebecca Taichman, relies on unmiked voices lifted in song, natural storytelling devices, simple props and costumes to reflect on a time in American history when all was not merry or bright but we needed a glimmer of hope more than ever.
Set on Christmas Eve in 1864 Washington during a cold and stark “silent night” in our nation’s history, A Civil War Christmas is not full of pageantry or theatrical wizardry. This divinely human-powered show weaves historical and fictional characters, period music and stories to create a lively patchwork of intimate moments and telling larger events.
The ensemble walks onstage in street clothes to what looks like a rehearsal space. Props sit atop tables and musical instruments rest against chairs as the actors put on the hoopskirts, corsets, waistcoats and uniform jackets of the Civil War era. Music director Victor Simonson presides over a grand piano.
Abraham Lincoln (Jeffry Denman, who creates a troubled and deeply humane Lincoln, along with playing a noble Robert E. Lee and a spiritual Walt Whitman) broods over his upcoming second inaugural address and conspires to slip out of the White House undetected so he can ride to the summer cottage and fetch the gloves from Paris he intends to give Mary Todd Lincoln (Kati Brazda) for Christmas.
Mary Todd frets over her spendthrift ways while shopping in the Eastern Market with her confidante and dressmaker, freewoman Elizabeth Keckley (Tracey Conyer Lee)—they unknowingly even have a sweet encounter with a nearly blind Mary Surratt (Matthew Greer), who was hanged for her role in the Lincoln assassination. When Mary dithers over what to get her husband, Elizabeth replies that what he would really like “is the gladness of your heart.” Mary, a troubled soul never at rest, decides a Christmas tree in the Blue Room is just the ticket—although trees are scarce in and around Washington because the wood is being used to warm the soldiers.
The pair wander around Washington arm in arm, each lost in their thoughts about the holiday and each grieving for their dead sons. Choreographer Liz Lerman has the cast moving with purposeful grace throughout, but there is something about what she designed for Elizabeth and Mary that is particularly defined and touching—the epic sweep of their hoopskirts so lovely, the bend of their backs and necks so etched with woe.
Both women bear their burdens with dignity, but differently. Miss Conyer’s beautifully expressive Elizabeth is through the rhythm of work, the cadence of her sewing needle easing her mind while she sings “Sew the Collar, Finish the Hem/What Child Is This?” while Miss Brazda’s intense, empathetic Mary seeks an outlet for her unquiet thoughts in the soldier’s hospital, providing chatter and comfort to the wounded, at one point singing a plaintive “Silent Night” to a feverish young man.
Meanwhile, at Mary Surratt’s boarding house, the Lincoln conspirators, led by the vainglorious John Wilkes Booth (played with brash confidence by Matthew Greer) hatch a kidnapping plot—expressed in a chilling rendition of one of the lesser-known choruses of “Maryland, My Maryland.”
The Union and Confederate soldiers are all along the Potomac River, cold and tense while on watch. In a standout performance, Oberon K.A. Adjepong portrays the itchy trigger-fingered black soldier Decatur Bronson, a freeman and farmer who is haunted by memories of his missing wife Rose (Nicole Lewis). The memory scene of the feisty Rose teaching Decatur to read is piercing and thoroughly disarming, At the same time, an escaped slave named Hannah (again, Nicole Lewis) desperately tries to reach the White House with her half-frozen daughter Jessa (Sierra Sila Weems). The mother-daughter pair are heart-rending, especially in the impassioned “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Balm in Gilead.”
This may seem like a lot of plot to digest—and there’s even more, a spot of lightheartedness in an unexpected crush between a Confederate horse (A.J. Shively, terrific as a frisky horse and in other roles) and a Union mule (Mr. Denham again), who declare their desire to the strains of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Yet, Miss Vogel deftly handles the multiple stories, keeping them aloft throughout and providing resolutions to some that are satisfying without feeling contrived.
A Civil War Christmas features familiar historical characters, Civil War events that are part of the culture of the Baltimore/Washington area and American holiday music that we may hear every year without really knowing its background. The production rises to great poignancy and relevance because it brings rich context to what we may have taken for granted or just listened to pleasantly without thinking.
It is everything you would want in a holiday show—it is inclusive, telling the stories of the famous and the forgotten and those of different ethnicities and religions; and it allows history to spring to life without pedantry or preachiness. Most of all, A Civil War Christmas honors what makes us uniquely American—the past that binds us together, the wounds we bear with a proud, scarred heart.
A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel . Directed by Rebecca Taichman . Featuring Jeffry Denman, Sierra Weems, Owings Mills, Mackenzie Jarrett, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Kati Brazda, Tyrone Davis, Jr., Andrea Goss, Matthew Greer, Sekou Laidlow, Tracey Conyer Lee, Nicole Lewis, and A.J. Shively. Choreographer: Liz Lerman, Music Director: Victor Simonson, Scenic & Costume Designer: Dane Laffrey, Lighting Designer: Scott Zielinski, Sound Designer: Stowe Nelson, Associate Choreographer: Paloma McGregor, Stage Manager: Captain Kate Murphy . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Lynne Menefee . MDTheatreGuide
Malcolm Lewis Barnes . Washington Times
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Anthony C. Hayes . Baltimore Post-Examiner
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts