REVIEW: A Civil War Christmas (Northlight Theatre)

     
     

History and make-believe, perilously intermixed, lack focus

     
     

Felicia P. Fields with the cast of A Civil War Christmas

   
Northlight Theatre presents
   
A Civil War Christmas
   
Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by
Henry Godinez
at
Northshore Center for Performing Arts (map)
Through Dec 19  |  tickets: $35-$55  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Paula Vogel is a playwright who divides in order to conquer: Her plays depict our socio/political/sexual differences, only to connect us to a larger linkage. How I Learned To Drive, Desdemona, The Baltimore Waltz and And Then There Were Seven scrutinized, respectively, incest, miscegenation, AIDS and same-sex love to put them in a context that discourages kneejerk repudiation and warrants something like understanding bordering on tolerance (well, not for child sex abuse, of course).

001_Khori Faison and Mildred Marie LangfordSet in the grim, war-torn winter of 1864 and on the supposedly special night of Christmas Eve, Vogel’s latest work in progress, now at Northlight Theatre, recalls Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” as it depicts a fugitive slave searching the dangerous streets of Washington D.C. for the daughter from whom she was separated after her arrival on the Underground Railroad. In ironic contrast, a mood-swinging Mary Todd Lincoln is on her own search—for the perfect Christmas tree to ensure domestic tranquility.

Since Vogel’s plays separate only in order to reconnect, their paths are bound to connect and connect and connect. Vogel contrives to create at least two non-factual Christmas miracles before these busy 150 minutes finally end. Before then she opens a time capsule that’s both absorbingly actual and problematically imagined. The result is a cross-section of life in wartime Washington that’s enriched immeasurably by carols like Longfellow’s “I Heard The Bells” and “What Child Is This?,” spirituals like “There Is A Balm in Gilead” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” (a guide for escaping slaves), and Civil War anthems (“While We Were Marching Through Georgia” and “The Liberty Ball”).

Between the songs the often cluttered action depicts both sides of a dangerously divided capital circa December 24, 1864. John Wilkes Booth (Derek Hasenstab) and his clumsy conspirators try to kidnap Lincoln. Lincoln (Will Clinger) improbably wanders off in the middle of the night to his Summer Cottage, reciting deathless phrases from his upcoming inaugural address and briefly glimpsing the lost former slave girl. Manic, extravagant, and driven, Mary Todd Lincoln (Paula Scrofano) manages to find her rare fir tree, which should have gone to the orphan home run by her African American seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (Felicia P. Fields), to socialize at a Washington charity event, to chat with Anna Surratt (who’s related to one of her husband’s future murderers), and to visit a dying boy in a soldiers’ hospital. (Maybe there were three Mary Todd Lincolns wandering Washington on this holy night.)

Less well known characters mix with the historical. Willy Mack (Samuel Robertson), who remembers how the Rebels slaughtered the black soldiers at Fort Pillow after they’d peacefully surrendered, vows to take no prisoners: Will he kill a 13-year-old Southern farm boy who wants to fight for Moseby’s Raiders but got lost? Two black soldiers are delegated to steal the much-moving Christmas tree from the Executive Mansion (it wasn’t the White House for another half century) and surprisingly succeed. Jewish soldiers hold a seder.

On this busy night we also catch name-dropping glimpses of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Lincoln’s advisor and former law clerk Nikolai, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton , Clara Barton (bringing in the wounded by ship), conspirators Lewis Payne and John Surratt, Elizabeth Thomas (who founded a shelter for wartime refugees), Longfellow, the ghost of Elizabeth’s murdered son, and Walt Whitman (dressing soldiers’ wounds and doubling as St. Nicholas).

In short, A Civil War Christmas lives up to its generic name with awesome specificity, not that the revelations it delivers can be entirely trusted. In the second act the overlapping and sprawling scenes become overcharged as well: The script, bent on at least two happy endings and as many messages of hope, slowly sprouts more contrived coincidences than Dickens would have dared. At least Ragtime, which this show most closely resembles, restricted its mix of historical and imaginary characters to four easily followed and separate-but-equal plotlines, eventuating in a believable but very different family from the traditional one seen at the musical’s beginning.

Director Henry Godinez and a superb cast of Chicago pros and young acolytes work like plow horses to shape and sort out this A.D.D. plethora of multiple narratives and messages. But it still helps if you’re a Civil War buff specializing in the winter of 1864. The point beyond the plots is a strong one. As Vogel says, in 2010 as well as 146 years ago, community values count just as much or more than family values. But if manufacturing feel-good resolutions and ignoring the horrible context of a fratricidal national insurrection is the way to preach that gospel, I’m not a believer. But the ballads, like the exquisite “Yellow Rose of Texas,” are glorious stuff. This show sings far more powerfully and persuasively than it speaks.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

003_Cast of A Civil War Christmas

  
  

3 Responses

  1. Thanks for the review, I was thinking of checking this out

  2. I just saw this last night. The cast was very talented — not least of all Felicia Fields — but I felt the writing was just terrible and the musical balance was lacking. It proved that it is possible to gather that many good singers together and still not get a very cohesive sound. I think the show has promise, but it could stand to lose a couple plot lines so that other characters and plots contained could be fleshed out and become more realistic.

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