Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field better watch out! There is a new pair of Lincolns in town, and their names are Bob Stillman and Alice Ripley.
Honest Abe (Stillman, who looks like he’s jumped off a contemporary five dollar bill) and his troubled wife, Mary Todd (the rough-hewn voiced Ripley), are the focal point of Paula Vogel’s ornate and truly American holiday spectacular A Civil War Christmas, now running at New York Theatre Workshop. This compelling theatrical experience weaves together dozens of characters, fact, fiction, Christmas carols, spirituals, and Civil War songs into an unapologetically messy — richly crafted — patchwork quilt.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1864. The Civil War is winding to a close. The newly re-elected President Lincoln is haunted by his dreams and a war-torn country. His wife, still in despair over the death of their son, is beginning to show signs of the mental illness that will haunt her for the rest of her life. Nonetheless, the couple is determined to give one another the best holiday possible. For Mrs. Lincoln, that involves the purchase of a Christmas tree, an idea she steals from her confidant and dress designer, former slave Elizabeth Keckley (portrayed by the expressive-voiced Karen Kandel).
Mr. Lincoln, meanwhile, sets out on horseback to fetch the Parisian present he imported for Mary, and promptly left in their summer cottage. But Lincoln is not alone on his trip. He is being followed by John Wilkes Booth (Sean Allan Krill), John Surratt (Chris Henry), and Lewis Payne (Ripley), who are planning to kidnap the President as payback for what he did to the Confederacy.
What these villains don’t count on is Lincoln spotting Jessa (Sumaya Bouhbal), a little girl and former slave, who is lost on the road after being separated from her mother, Hannah (the affecting Amber Iman). Vogel’s interweaving of Lincoln’s quest to reunite the fictional Jessa and Hannah is one of the play’s strongest points.
However, not all of the plot strands fit as tidily. An encounter between Decatur Bronson, an African-American Union blacksmith, and Raz, a thirteen year-old Virginia boy determined to fight for the Confederacy, is too peripheral to the main story, despite convincing portrayals by K. Todd Freeman and Rachel Spencer Hewitt. And a visit from poet Walt Whitman (Krill) to a dying Jewish soldier (Jonathan-David) is a bit too symbolically heavy-handed.
Tina Landau’s staging, which utilizes a bare, wood-planked set by James Schuette, Toni-Leslie James’ lovely costumes, and shadowy lighting by Scott Zielinski, is smooth and swift, despite occasionally confusing double and triple casting, a necessity for a small production with a cast of characters as large as this.
Stillman and Ripley bring appropriate gravitas to the Lincolns, imbuing them with a haunted quality, as if they know that the glimmers of hope they experience as Christmas occurs will be short lived. For us, this is especially sad, knowing how their story tragically concludes just four months later.