Reviewed by Judy Richter
Playwright Paula Vogel weaves a vivid tapestry of stories and traditional music in "A Civil War Christmas -- An American Musical Celebration," being given its West Coast premiere by TheatreWorks. All of the stories take place in and near the nation's capital on Christmas Eve, 1864. The Civil War is winding down, and it's evident that the North is winning. President Lincoln has issued the Emancipation Proclamation, so many black people have been freed from slavery, but its memories are vivid.
The 14-member cast portrays an array of characters, most of them taken from history. We meet two famous poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman, both played by Gary S. Martinez, along with President Lincoln, played by very human Robert Parsons; and his wife, the somewhat unstable but well-meaning Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Diana Torres Koss, who also plays Secretary of War Stanton and others. One of the stories involves the president's decision to ride out to his summer place to fetch the gloves that are his wife's Christmas gift. A White House employee hears about the trip and innocently tells some of his fellow rooming house tenants about it. Those tenants include John Wilkes Booth (Kit Wilder) and two of his cohorts, who plan to ambush and kill the president on his journey.
In the meantime, Mrs. Lincoln is Christmas shopping with her black seamstress and confidante, Elizabeth Keckley (C. Kelley Wright), who's still grieving for her Union soldier son, killed in battle. Yet another story involves a black soldier/blacksmith, Decatur Bronson (Michael A. Shepperd), who's looking for his wife, who apparently was kidnapped by Confederate forces.
The most compelling story finds a black mother, Hannah (Tracy Camp), and her daughter, Jessa (Myha'la Herrold, alternating with Tiana Travis), making their way to Washington and freedom. After they become separated, they both wander around the city looking for each other and the White House, where they believe President Lincoln will take them in. The scenes of young Jessa wandering frightened and freezing in the increasingly cold night are gripping, leading one to wonder just how she'll be rescued and by whom.
One also wonders at first where all of these disparate stories are going, but Vogel skillfully brings all of the threads together for an uplifting ending. In the meantime, she mixes in a variety of traditional songs of the time as well as favorite Christmas carols, all sung well by the cast, accompanied by musical director William Liberatore on piano. Daryl Waters arranged and orchestrated the music. Robert Kelley's taut staging facilitates the shifts in focus, as does Joe Ragey's set design. Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt assist the actors' shift from one character to another. The sound is by Cliff Caruthers, and the lighting is by Pamila Z. Gray.
"A Civil War Christmas" seems aptly timed when the nation is again at war. It illustrates some of the casualties of war, but it also sounds strong notes of hope. It also in another example of Vogel's prowess as a playwright.