Paula Vogel’s patchwork Civil War tale is epic in length but not scope
The holiday season is often a time of reflection, but Paula Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of How I Learned to Drive, has squinted back a bit further in time than most. Vogel’s new work, A Civil War Christmas, currently staged in a resourceful and intermittently affecting New York Theater Workshop production by director Tina Landau, trains its eye nearly 150 years back on the final Christmas Eve seminal president Abraham Lincoln would ever see. It’s an over-long pop-up history lesson that absolutely has its heart in the right place but misjudges just when it comes time to take a bow.
Not exactly a musical yet not quite sturdy enough to qualify as a solid dramatic work, Christmas occurs on Christmas Eve, 1864. It is also the eve of emancipation and the end of the Civil War, though both remain a few weeks away from seeing the light of day. So, too, does Jessa (Sumaya Bouhbal) long to see daybreak. The young girl has been separated from her mother, Hannah (Amber Iman), an escaped slave on a sojourn to the White House. Meanwhile, Lincoln himself (a terrific Bob Stillman, hitting grace notes full of wry humor and humility) has managed to evade his bodyguards – despite an existing threat on his life – to grab the Christmas gifts he has left behind. Saddled with a sudden, rare sense of freedom in his solitude, he embarks on his own quest of self-discovery once he finds Jessa and makes it his mission to reunite her with Hannah.
While he is on his own, Lincoln isn’t alone in such a voyage. Vogel’s grand canvas also includes room for characters both historical and historically based. For instance, Landau’s nimble ensemble, bouncing around in multiple roles, essays real people like Ulysses S. Grant (Chris Henry) and Robert E. Lee (Sean Allan Krill, who also plays John Wilkes Booth), who each prove to be flawed, compromised leaders. One of the characters played by Alice Ripley (who even plays the very male Lewis Payne) is Mary Todd Lincoln, whose association with freed slave and seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (Karen Kandel) elevated the latter to great heights in the nation’s capital. But they also portray composite characters like Decatur Bronson (K. Todd Freeman), who has abandoned his service in charge of a regiment of black soldiers to work as a Union blacksmith at a Union Army supply depot. He has vowed vengeance on any Confederate soldiers he might encounter in return for the rebel kidnapping of his wife.
Unlike Keckley, however, Vogel hasn’t quite stitched together as seamless a work. The multiple threads she tries to interweave in Christmas sometimes clash. An encounter between a dying Jewish soldier (Jonathan-David) and poet Walt Whitman (Krill yet again) feels forced and haughty, and undercuts any growing affection characters like Bronson, Keckley, and Abraham Lincoln have earned. The playwright also forgets that less is more. She sometimes gets too mired in details when Landau’s cast can actually fill in a lot of emotional resonance on their own (I’m thinking of some of the rather superficial scenes involving Mary Todd.) Landau does succeed in purveying handsomely evocative stagecraft; Scott Zielinski’s standout lighting design, Tony Leslie-James’ costumes, and James Schuette’s minimalist wood set all serve as a reminder of the everyday hardships with which even the most distinguished of 1860s America had to contend.
Vogel’s intentions are honorable. She wants to portray that people on both sides of the bloody battle were indeed people and had more in common as humans than they were divided by ideology. But the work, at two and a half hours, lumbers on longer than it should. When does Landau’s piece come together? In the Christmas’ musical numbers, a combination of holiday hymns, battle cries and spirituals, quite lovingly directed by Andrew Resnick. Only then does the large cast literally achieve a sense of harmony. One wishes that this feeling didn’t have to be interrupted so often. Then again, there’s a lesson in that as well.
A Civil War Christmas
New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street. Through Dec. 30. http://www.nytw.org/a_civil_war_christmas_lp.asp
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