Long Wharf Theatre

Paula Vogel’s newest work, the ambitious, multi-faceted, A Civil War Christmas, subtitled, An American Musical Celebration, cannot be dismissed lightly. This Pulitzer Prize- winning playwright, known for her witty and irreverent works like The Baltimore Waltz, How I Learned To Drive, and The Mineola Twins, taught playwriting at Brown University for 12 years; this fall, she began her new appointment as the chair of the playwriting dept. a the Yale School of Drama.

Ms. Vogel has stated that it was high time that at Xmas, instead of presenting yet another Dickens “A Christmas Carol,” tribute should be paid to American traditions with particular focus on the Civil War period, the terrible conflict between North and South that reverberates still today. She has done so using 14 actors playing over 50 roles to tell the story of a number of people, black, white, famous, infamous, ordinary citizens, soldiers and officers. We meet them all costumed in earthy tones by Toni-James on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve in Washington, D.C. in 1864; they interweave on a huge many-level Set made of naturalistic wood planking designed by James Schuette and lit murkily by Scott Zielinski. Tina Landau does a terrific job of directing the hard-working, singing cast through two hours and twenty minutes (one intermission) of this complicated Nativity play or Christmas pageant. The music, composed of old and familiar holiday tunes supervised, arranged and orchestrated by Daryl Waters, is accompanied marvelously by Andrew Resnick, (Music Dir.) on what seems to be an electric piano.

Vogel creates a sometimes compelling tapestry with President Abraham Lincoln, played by Jay Russell, and his unstable wife, Mary Todd, presented by the excellently emotional Diane Sutherland, with the people who were plotting to kill Lincoln, like John Wilkes Booth, acted well by Guy Adkins and Justin Blanchard’s John Surratt, the saving of Jessa (Malenky Welsh), the child of a former slave, Hannah, depicted beautifully by Bianca Laverne Jones, and the lives of many others, to tell the tale of freedom, forgiveness, peace and gladness. (Ironically, her former student, Sarah Ruhl, also wrote a Nativity pageant of a different sort; entitled Passion Play, it was produced at Yale earlier this season.)

While many scenes are interesting, A Civil War Christmas is deadly serious, devoid of humor or any scenes of comic relief. Ms, Vogel covers so many plots she does not have time to pursue them in depth. Many of the characters seem stereotypical. Although J.D.Goldblatt is fine in all his parts, most especially a horse, Silver, the scene with Moses Levy, a dying Jewish soldier, is the most disappointing in terms of concept and exposition. (When Mary Lincoln sings a Christmas Carol to him, he says he does not know it. I think that highly unlikely. Instead, the lighting of Hanukkah candles would have been a perfect touch here.)

A Civil War Christmas, a worthy effort that despite the sparkling Xmas tree at the end falls flat ---at the Long Wharf Theatre through December 21. ###.

This review originally aired on WMNR Fine Arts Radio.

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