A historical holiday
Huntington’s ‘Civil War Christmas’ blends real-life drama with seasonal sentiments
In an interview in October 1998, the year she won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for her remarkable memory play “How I Learned to Drive,’’ the playwright Paula Vogel said, somewhat surprisingly: “I want to start to write for musical theater.’’
When the interviewer asked her why, Vogel replied that the musical stage is “an emotionally overpowering form. And because it’s so overpowering, it’s political dynamite.’’
At its best, Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration,’’ now receiving an ambitious production by the Huntington Theatre Company under the direction of Jessica Thebus, does indeed touch deep chords of emotion. At other times, you may find yourself wishing Vogel would not try to tell so many stories at once. It is a sprawling, discursive, big-hearted, often inspiring, sometimes vexing piece of theater.
Set in Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve, 1864, “A Civil War Christmas’’ is populated, “Ragtime’’-style, with familiar historical characters (Abraham Lincoln, members of his Cabinet, John Wilkes Booth, Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant) and characters who are either fictional or based on real people who have largely been forgotten. Their interwoven stories, dramatized in short vignettes, flashbacks, and striking tableaux, are punctuated with Christmas carols, folk songs, and spirituals.
What connects many of these characters is loss. There is Decatur Bronson (Gilbert Glenn Brown), a black Union soldier whose wife, Rose, was kidnapped by Southerners (“Every Confederate I kill is a bridge to reach her,’’ he says grimly); White House seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (Jacqui Parker), who saw her brother sold into slavery when she was a child and then suffered the death of her son George in battle; Hannah (Uzo Aduba), a runaway slave who, fearful of capture by slave-catchers, sends her young daughter Jessa (Hyacinth Tauriac, who alternates in the role with Alanna T. Logan) alone on a wagon into the city on a cold winter night; and Mary Todd Lincoln (Karen MacDonald), still mourning the death four years earlier of her young son Edward as she hunts for a Christmas tree for her husband.
Onto this already teeming stage Vogel introduces a teenage boy (Molly Schreiber) who is determined to join the rebel army (and who presents Bronson with a stark moral choice), and a Quaker soldier named Chester Manton Saunders (Chris Bannow), who is largely superfluous.
As for Lincoln (Ken Cheeseman), he is curiously devoid of gravitas here. Against the backdrop of momentous events in which he played a definitive role, Vogel has imagined the Great Emancipator as not much more than an anxious hubby fussing about what he should get his wife for Christmas.
The other characters fare better, and it is they who give “A Civil War Christmas’’ its emotional punch. Brown lets us see where Bronson’s ruthless resolve comes from, but also where his final sense of mercy comes from, too. He delivers a shiver-inducing version of “Yellow Rose of Texas’’ that is wrapped around a flashback of his courtship of Rose.
As Keckley, Parker is a portrait in understated strength, and her rendition of the African-American spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead’’ has a haunting beauty. As Mary Todd Lincoln, MacDonald captures both the first lady’s manic flutter and the demons she is trying to keep at bay, while Aduba convinces us of the wrenching anguish Hannah feels at taking a step she thought would protect her child, only to imperil her.
Vogel deserves credit for her determination to tell history from the perspective of the disenfranchised, or, as she puts it, “all the stories that are erased from history by the hand of the historians, all of the stories hidden from us by prejudice.’’ As we draw closer to the holidays, the Boston theater scene will be chockablock with productions of “A Christmas Carol,’’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,’’ and other staples of the season. “A Civil War Christmas’’ is a welcome addition, even though you might wish Vogel had subtracted a character or two.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.