There is often a certain permission granted by theater audiences this time of year for plays and players to be more sentimental than we usually let them get away with. After all, this is the time of year when family differences are set aside so that people may be together, and, if not quite enjoying one another’s company, then at least not actively miserable in each other’s presence. It is this heightened tolerance for sentimentality that makes the regional premiere of A Civil War Christmas at the History Theatre possible, and, on the whole, enjoyable, when at any other time of year some of the liberties taken would grate the nerves raw.
Set in and around Washington, D.C. in the days leading up to Christmas, 1864, the play opens with a striking tableau of the violence resulting from the Civil War. In quick succession against the backdrop of Joel Sass’s excellent set – four tall Doric columns rising out of a set made otherwise of planks of wood, conveying the perfect mix of small Southern city and rising imperial capital that was 1860s Washington – we see scenes of Confederate and Union soldiers fighting in hand-to-hand-combat tightly lit by lighting designer Mike Wangen, eventually settling into the first song of the evening, “All Quiet Along the Potomac” mashed with “Silent Night.” The opening scene certainly works to convey that the show is not your typical Christmas story, but it is also indicative of the show’s basic architecture:
At it’s heart, this production of A Civil War Christmas is a vehicle for the music, and it felt more like a revue than a fully integrated work of musical theater.
Playwright Paula Vogel attempts to show so many different facets of Washington at Christmastime that many vignettes are so short it takes fully half an hour for some dramatic thrust to emerge. The vignettes are not only hard to keep straight, with over 60 characters, but they sometimes feel didactic – Vogel’s characters explain themselves and their historical significance. She also never misses an opportunity to insert notable historical figures – thus Longfellow, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and most of Lincoln’s cabinet all make brief appearances that amount more to a wink towards the cultural knowledge of the playwright and her audience than to substantial components of the show. Nonetheless, there are some plot threads, and characters, that stick out, and none more so than Jan Lee’s performance as Mary Todd Lincoln.
Mrs. Lincoln is best remembered today as having likely suffered from bipolar disorder, and Lee perfectly captures the mixture of mania, extreme nervousness, and bouts of despair that characterize that disease. But far from being a caricature, we see a depth in Mrs. Lincoln that rarely emerges in portraits of the woman: here she is a mother mourning her dead son, Willie, but also a wife mourning the relationship she used to have with her husband. Where once she and her husband spent hours talking about politics and the state of the country, she is now excluded from the halls of power and her husband is demoralized from the toll of the war. So – and this is a perfect example of the sentimental stuff that would be totally inappropriate in any season but this one – when it comes time to decide on a Christmas gift for the President, her friend and confidante Lizzy Keckley (played here by the excellent Joetta Wright), tells Mrs. Lincoln to give the President “the gladness of your heart.” Mrs. Lincoln interprets this to be a decorated Christmas tree “in the German tradition,” and sets off, unknowingly, to steal the tree Keckley ordered from a prominent black grocer in town. It may not be Savannah (General Sherman’s gift to the President), but it sure would look great in the Blue Room.
The President, meanwhile, has remembered that his gift for Mrs. Lincoln is back at their farm and tries to set out to get it against the advice of his security man. Unbeknownst to the President, the actor John Wilkes Booth, played suavely by David Maga, has learned of his planned journey and plots Lincoln’s assassination that night – needless to say, unsuccessfully. Lincoln returns to the White House to give Mrs. Lincoln her gift, but when Mrs. Lincoln tries to present the Christmas tree to him, she finds that it has been stolen (in an antic-laden and unlikely sub-plot involving two young African American Union soldiers stealing it back for Mrs. Keckley).
Some of the best musical numbers come from the various plotlines in the African American community of Washington, including a stunning rendition of “There is a Balm in Gilead” sung by Lynnea Monique Doublette and Joetta Wright, and a wonderful ensemble piece “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” While moving and beautifully arranged by music director J.D. Steele, they do not transcend the revue-style of the show.
In the hands of director Austene Van, the show is enjoyable more as a collection of events than as a cohesive narrative. Darius Dotch shines in a number of roles, and Fred Wagner’s dignified and befuddled Lincoln was a delight to watch. As you might expect from a sentimental show, everything works out in the end just as it should, at least for right now. The Lincolns have a happy Christmas, a lost and pitiful escaped slave girl is reunited with her mother through the remarkable efforts of Washington’s African American community, and the horrors of war fall away in favor of the hope of peace. And although imperfect and sometimes sappy, I found myself walking the dark and cold streets of downtown Saint Paul after the show filled with a sense of “peace on Earth, good will to men.”
A Civil War Christmas
By Paula Vogel
Music by Daryl Waters
Directed by Austene Van
Music direction by J.D. Steele
At History Theatre until December 18
30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul