A Historic Christmas Tale, a Modern Classic
The year is 1864 and the Civil War is raging within sight of Washington, DC. It has been almost a year since the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. It will be almost another year before the Civil War ends and the Emancipation Proclamation is read in Texas. However, on Christmas Eve, all this and Lincoln’s assassination are yet to come. And yet the seeds for one of the greatest victories and tragedies in American history will be laid to ground this night.
Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas,” now on stage at The Diversionary Theatre, is probably one of the most relevant and brilliant productions of the 2015 Winter Season. Created as a combination reading and Christmas Carol selection, Vogel’s play takes a deep and touching look at the themes of hope, race, class and diversity that infuse American society and inform our culture even today.
Beautifully directed by Kim Strassburger, the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. Each has a major role and a host of minor characters, easily identified by seamless transitions with hats, boy postures or gestures. Characters move in and out, James Wilkes Booth conspires against Lincoln, a former slave girl gets lost in the snow. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant camp among their men. Of special mention are Skyler Sullivan as Lincoln and Annie Hinton as Mary Todd Lincoln, who imbue their characters with a sort of tragic dignity. Hinton’s Mary Todd Lincoln is especially nuanced as Lincoln’s mentally unstable wife, haunted by a dead son, with family loyal to the Confederate cause.
Taylor Henderson and Durwood Murray inhabit two of the more fascinating characters in the ensemble, bringing them to exquisite life and providing the White balanced narratives of the Lincolns and the Union Army a much needed African-American story line, filling in the basic Civil War story with the little known figures who were also there: freemen and women, escaped slaves, soldiers and statesmen.
Henderson plays Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker and close confidante of Mrs. Lincoln. A former slave who bought her freedom, Keckley became the elegant go-to designer for all of Washington, D.C. Henderson’s Keckley is sweetness and elegance underlined with steel. Like the First Lady, she is haunted by a dead son and pursued by the needs of the living. In contrast, Murray’s character, Decatur Bronson, is a composite of two known Union soldiers who received the Medal of Honor. Bronson is brusque and scarred by the loss of his wife, taken by fleeing Confederate soldiers. Murray gives Bronson his due, but as Bronson learns that revenge often eats the messenger, Murray carefully plays out Bronson’s transition till his moment of epiphany, that moment that gives him back his humanity.
Adam Cuppy has perhaps the best comedic timing of the ensemble, but it is as Union soldier Moise Levy that Cuppy shines. Visited by Mary Todd Lincoln incognito, Levy stands in for the Jewish soldiers who also served. Based in part on the real Moise Levy, taken prisoner by the Confederates, Cuppy’s Levy confuses the First Lady at first since her experience with non-Christians has been limited. But soon both are brought together by the need to witness Levy’s death.
Brian Bose, seen recently in a limited role in “Twelfth Night” at the Old Globe, gets a meatier, well-deserved Christmas time role as President Lincoln’s aide and Cabinet member. Bose brings excellent times to his role as aide and switches beautifully to a wide variety of minor parts. Tanika Baptiste and Cashae Monya also have multiple roles but their most poignant portrayals are those of Hannah and her daughter, Jessa, former slaves afraid of recapture. Their journey to Washington, D.C., and Jessa’s near death from the cold, are a good counterpoint to the White House Christmas party. Likewise, Julia Nardi-Loving plays a variety of parts but it is as the young, underage Confederate soldier Raz that Nardi-Loving is the strongest, as Raz stares down Decatur Bronson’s gun, Nardi-Loving and Murray work in perfect sync towards their mutual redemption.
Designed as a generic Victorian parlor, the spare set by local set designer, Kristin Flores, gives this holiday play a certain universality. Flores keeps the focus on the actors in front of the antique white wall which goes partially opaque to reveal another choir, lit like an old daguerreotype, who support the singers in front. Flores has been making a name for herself of late with stunning sets for Culture Clash, and most recently for ‘Eternally Bad,” for Moxie Theatre.
Tim McKnight’s musical direction gives the play a deeply felt resonance from the simple Christmas carols most people are familiar with to the gorgeous and somewhat less well-known African-American spirituals, including the stunning, “Children Go Where I send Thee.” While not necessarily highly polished, sung in voices occasionally slightly off or somewhat raw, the cast gives the songs a realness and an emotional quality that hyper-polished deliveries usually lack. Many of the songs are beautifully supported by the Encore Vocal Ensemble and fiddler Kristopher Apple.
The final holidays have their traditions- the tree, holly, Tiny Tim and way too much sugar, all great in their own way. However, Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas” gives those looking for a little more, a fresh holiday story- told of a snowy winter, on the edges of an all-consuming war- which has a strong, emotional connection for our times, 150 years later. And so too, does its message- of sought for hope, peace and a better year to come. Finishing the holiday season or ringing in the New Year, be sure to find time for this beautifully rendered show, you will be glad you saw it.
“A Civil War Christmas” runs through January 3rd at The Diversionary Theatre.