If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan


The Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven is currently closing out 2008 with the world premiere of Paula Volgel’s latest work, “A Civil War Christmas”. This well-intentioned but over-stuffed holiday stew is like “A Christmas Carol” as written by Ken Burns. With a cast of 14 actors playing nearly 50 characters – some historically significant, some not – the new play is subtitled “An American Musical Celebration” as it incorporates several traditional Christmas songs of the period. Theatergoers expecting some of the sly, subversive wit and quirky humor evident in Paula Vogel’s other works will find none here. Better they should check the playwright’s far-superior “The Long Christmas Ride Home”, which played at Long Wharf a few seasons back. In the meantime, I pity the poor students who will no doubt be forced to sit through this stolid history lesson.

This is dutiful history served in big spoonfuls with actors serving as multiple narrators (“Meanwhile back at the White House!”) and always telling much more than showing. Characters are quickly introduced and then hastily recycled into another role. They may return, but catching up on their thread of the story will prove arduous for those not paying close attention. One of the more successful is the true-life character, Elizabeth Keckley (in a stirring performance by Ora Jones), the African-American seamstress who was Mary Todd Lincoln’s confidante and a compelling enough figure to warrant her own play. But Vogel seems determined to cram as much as possible into this long Christmas Eve fable set in and around the banks of the Potomac in 1864. Famous figures like Robert E. Lee, Clara Barton and Walt Whitman are rushed on and off while more time is devoted to superficial portraits of the Lincolns and fictional composites who weave in and out of their lives. In the end we are never given enough time with any one character to care about their plight or understand their significance to the rest of the story.

Some good acting, strong vocals and creative direction (by Tina Landau) can be found here and the valiant company often rises above the material. There may, indeed, be the seed of a good play trying to sprout in Vogel’s ambitious but ultimately tedious new work, but there’s clearly much work still to be done. Let’s hope this is not under consideration as Long Wharf’s annual holiday attraction.

 "A Civil War Christmas” continues at Long Wharf Theatre through December 21, 2008. For further information and ticket reservations call 203.787.4282 or visit www.longwharf.org.

Tom Holehan is co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tom@stratford.lib.ct.us. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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