Dallas — On opening night of Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas: An American Christmas Musical at Theatre Three on Nov. 24, intermission was the first time patrons were able to check their phones and see the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
Last week brought another similar ruling in the death of Eric Garner. As protests continue around the country and Facebook and Twitter feeds flood with #blacklivesmatter and #wecantbreathe—and arguments among “friends” heat up to the point of deFacing—it’s hard to not be moved over the themes of A Civil War Christmas. And that’s taking into account that Theatre Three’s production, directed by Bruce R. Coleman, suffers in pacing.
Vogel’s sensitive and occasionally beautiful script warrants more thought than it's been given in Coleman’s slow-moving production.
The setting is Washington D.C. at Christmastime as the Civil War is winding down and many slaves are fleeing for freedom, which automatically provides a sense of urgency. With its mix of public domain songs from carols to folk tunes to spirituals ( “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” about the Big Dipper, which was used to guide blacks on their journey northward), it’s even heartwarming. That’s a word not normally associated with a playwright who won a Pulitzer for a smartly structured play about incest (How I Learned to Drive) and whose previous yuletide drama (The Long Christmas Ride Home) featured a puppet orgy.
A Civil War Christmas premiered in 2008 at Long Wharf Theatre, and was written, Vogel writes in the preface to the play, out of the need to have a Christmas show that is not about Victorian Brits. Civil War is not likely to supplant A Christmas Carol, but it’s definitely appreciated in a landscape of snowmen, reindeers and otherworldly miracles.
The play has more than 50 characters, and is meant for multiple casting. What’s intriguing is that Vogel does not assign roles to specific performers, giving the director carte blanche to cast them across age, gender and race, with the "distribution of voices” depending on the number of actors in the cast. Vogel claims it will work with as few as five actors, but probably best with at least twice that many. The original Long Wharf production used 14; a subsequent one in Boston had 12, as does T3’s.
That means historic characters like Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman and Mary Surratt could be played by actors of varying age, gender or color, although most performances have stayed mostly with traditional lines. The main exception is the role of Raz, a boy, designed by Vogel as a "britches role" to be played by a young woman (Arianna Movassagh at T3).
The story follows several people on their journeys, most affectingly the black girl Jessa (a terrific Qnetta Caston), whose mother Hannah (Renee Michéal) tells her to go across the Potomac River without her, and that she’ll find her later on at the White House. If some minor characters and relationships get lost in the storytelling shuffle—that’s a lot of folks to keep sorted, especially with few changes of costume—the major ones come through loud and clear. Having some familiarity with historical characters, such as John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators, helps.
In Theatre Three’s cast, standouts include Brandi Andrade as Mary Todd Lincoln; the energy-infusing Stormi Demerson as Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and Mary Todd’s confidante; and Willy Welch in numerous roles, including Walt Whitman and Robert E. Lee. Welch also plays guitar and banjo for certain songs, adding to the musical director Pam Holcomb-McLain’s piano and Katrina Kratzer’s violin/fiddle. The numbers that work best here are solos or duos; at the performance reviewed, some chorus numbers were marred by sour notes and off harmonies.
With many families having soldiers on both sides of the war, and in some cases willing to take a break from fighting in the holiday spirit, this story is reminiscent of the movie Joyeux Noel, based on a true tale of British, French and German troops calling a temporary Christmas cease-fire in World War I. (That film was also made into an opera, Silent Night, presented by Fort Worth Opera this year.)
The stresses and joys of the holidays figure in the stories, but it all takes a back seat to the bigger issue of freedom and a country looking toward its future. In another few weeks, the Abraham Lincoln’s executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, will be issued—but it’s clear that prejudice and racial divisions won’t be over for a long time. Interesting that in 2014, six years after the election of the country’s first African-American president led some some declare a "post-racial" era, we’re still examining issues of race and the legacy of inequity.
These words from Lincoln’s second inaugural address linger: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.”
Peace on earth, good will toward men, indeed.