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A Civil War Christmas

Paula Vogel's historical pageant is an ambitious and laudable work, but suffers from too many characters and plotlines. logo
Ora Jones and J.D. Goldblatt
in A Civil War Christmas
(© T Charles Erickson)
With A Civil War Christmas, now premiering at Long Wharf Theatre, Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel has taken on the ambitious task of creating a homegrown alternative to Dickens' 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol. It's a laudable effort -- especially given that many of those of us past childhood are pretty well Tiny Timmed out -- but where Vogel stumbles is in trying to weave together way too many characters and plot lines, according none quite enough time and attention to achieve full resonance. Some scenes are mere seconds long; and often a character will be charged with providing a lead-into his or her own dialogue or action, as well as a segue to the next micro-scene. While director Tina Landau keeps the stage business moving briskly on James Schuette's bare barn-board set, the information onslaught can be wearing.

Instead of Scrooge and his ghosts, we've got Union and Confederate armies squared off on either side of the Potomac on Christmas Eve 1864; a runaway slave and her little daughter trying to cross over to freedom; a plucky stable boy hoping to enlist with the Rebs; President Abraham Lincoln, his mood-swinging missus, and their loyal multicultural staff making holiday preparations in the White House; a cell of would-be assassins (including John Wilkes Booth) plotting away in a nearby boarding house; and an injured Jewish soldier near death in a Union infirmary, seen to by Clara Barton but longing for the friendly ministrations of "that funny poet fellow," Walt Whitman. And those are just the key figures in this pageant. The 14-member cast stands ready to shoulder literally scores of roles -- in some instances, merely donning a top hat to state their extraneous names.

Amid the swirl, two story lines stand out, thanks largely to strong, committed performances. Marc Damon Johnson plays Union sergeant Decatur Bronson (a historical composite), who started out a slave, learned to read and write (which was illegal in that era), and bought his own freedom and that of his teacher/wife -- only to have her stolen away by slavers. He has chosen blacksmithing as a form of occupational therapy, and the hard work fends off grief over his missing beloved.

Equally salient is the story of Elizabeth Keckley (played by Ora Jones), another former slave, who -- having achieved her own emancipation through her skill as a seamstress -- became a trusted companion to the troubled Mrs. Lincoln and founded the Contraband Relief Association to assist other freed slaves adapting to Washington, D.C. Keckley also suffers from flashbacks of the childhood moment when she fully grasped her slave status, of the master who raped her, and of the son she sent off to college, only to see him sign up and be slain in the Union cause. The stage blooms with emotion whenever these two performers are on.

Conversely, both Lincolns are cartoonishly trivialized for plot purposes. All he cares about is retrieving a forgotten gift, and she's obsessed with getting her hands on the city's one puny fir tree. And let's face it, the suspense is virtually nil. Will Lincoln be assassinated in the course of his Christmas Eve errand? Hardly. Will the little runaway slave girl be left to freeze on the cold city streets? That would be quite a different play.

Like the emblematic Christmas tree, Vogel's script is overladen with ornamentation, obscuring its essential message about hope and rebirth and burying her writing gifts under mounds of factoidal busywork.


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