Thursday, February 14, 2013

“A Civil War Christmas”- A Yuletide Tale with a Sobering Backdrop

By Judd Hollander

It's not easy to combine the intimate with the epic, but playwright Paula Vogel has done just that with A Civil War Christmas, now at New York Theatre Workshop. Set in and around Washington, D.C. and told in the style of a sweeping tableau, the story looks at various individuals on both sides of the American Civil War, along with those caught in between, on a cold Christmas Eve in 1864.

Among those portrayed are President Abraham Lincoln (Bob Stillman) who is so preoccupied with matters of state he almost forgets a Christmas present for his wife; said wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Alice Ripley) still grieving for the death of her son two years earlier and who is prone to sudden mood swings; Hannah (Amber Iman), a runaway slave trying to head north with her young daughter Jessa (Sumaya Bouhbal); Decatur Bronson (K. Todd Freeman), a free man of color carrying a deep bitterness against those responsible for the fate of his wife; Raz (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), a young Virginia boy eager to join up with the Confederate Army; Ward Hill Lamon (Sean Allan Krill), the President's chief of security, determined to protect his boss from an assassin's bullet; Elizabeth Keckley (Karen Kandel) a Negro seamstress who lost her son to the war and who is trying to finish multiple holiday orders while also providing some joy for those less fortunate than herself; and John Wilkes Booth (Krill) who, with his associates, has some very special plans for Mr. Lincoln this night.

As the various stories are played out, sometimes with great detail, sometimes with no more than a few lines, the narrative quickly takes hold, drawing one into the time period depicted. Told on basically a bare stage, the cast, all of whom play multiple roles, - including acting as narrators and effortlessly switching from one part to the next - are able to make the story come alive, helping to create both a sense of place and allowing the various characters to seem real quite real. While many of those shown have different pasts, purposes and outcomes, none feel phony or forced; all coming across naturally via the dialogue and performances delivered.

The show is also helped by a generous selection of period music, including Christmas tunes, folksongs (i.e. "Follow the Drinking Gourd"), and military and patriotic tunes of the day. All of which help to illuminate the era shown and give one an idea of the amount of research that apparently went into this project.

At times however Vogel does seem too close to her material, getting a bit preachy here and there, such when she tries to draw a parallel about government taking care of its citizens to the present day economic situation, and there are a few moments in act two that tend to be a bit on the cutesy side. Additionally, there are a few scenes that would have worked better spoken instead of sung, and also possibly edited a bit (such as when the characters search for Jessa and the final outcome in that regard), but for the most part, the show works very well indeed. Not surprisingly, the smaller and quieter moments have the most emotional impact, rather than the more sprawling scenes. There's also some interesting historical information tossed in. Such as how back then one could simply walk up to the White House, knock on the door and ask to see the President - a practice long gone. There's also a nice bookend to the piece with three men at the beginning and end of the show, different characters each time, reflecting and reminiscing during a quiet moment as they wait for what the next day will bring.

Tina Landau's direction is very good, helping to move the story from one setting to another with ease, with no abrupt break during transitions. The entire cast is excellent, with Stillman doing a good job as Lincoln and Ripley powerfully putting a relatable face to the mentally and emotionally tormented Mary. Other standouts include Bouhbal as Jessie, Iman as Hannah, Kandel as Keckley and Krill in various parts - from Booth and Lamon to Generals Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Costumes by Toni-Leslie James are all nicely done, and the choice of having period photographs on the wall of the theatre is a nice touch.

A touching if sometimes overlong tale, A Civil War Christmas presents a sweeping story of the many different people touched by war, as well as the innate goodness, depths of pain and demands of revenge that they carry inside.

A Civil War Christmas

Featuring: Sumaya Bouhbal (Jessa, Little Joe and others), K. Todd Freeman (Decatur Bronson, James Wormley and others), Chris Henry (Chester Saunders, Ulysses S. Grant, John Surratt and others), Rachel Spencer Hewitt (Raz, Mary Surratt and others), Antwayn Hopper (Walker Lewis, Jim Wormley and others), Amber Iman (Hannah, Rose, Mrs. Thomas and others), Jonathan-David (Ely Parker, Silver, Frederick Wormley, Mosey Levy and others), Karen Kandel (Elizabeth Keckley, Willy Mack and others), Sean Allan Krill (Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, John Wilkes Booth and others), Alice Ripley (Marry Todd Lincoln, Lewis Payne and others), Bob Stillman (Abraham Lincoln, Raider and others)

Written by Paula Vogel
Musical Supervision and Arrangements: Daryl Waters
Musical Director: Andrew Resnick
Scenic Design: James Schuette
Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski
Sound Design: Jill BC Du Boff
Incidental Music: Daryl Waters
Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist
Directed by Tina Landau

New York Theatre Workshop
70 East 4th Street
Closed: December 30, 2012
Running Time, Two Hours, 30 Minutes, with one intermission

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