By Paula Vogel
Directed by Tina Landau
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)”
-Walt Whitman (From “The Wound-Dresser,” 1865)
Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas” is a profound and uplifting story of the events that occur in the nation’s capitol (and other locations) on Christmas Eve in 1864. A group of actors addresses the audience, and then dons the costumes of a variety of characters including President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. Karen Kandel says, “Welcome to our story. The season is upon us, and whether it’s Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or New Year’s—it’s a time when we feel our connection to a larger community.”
It is that connection that ignites Ms. Vogel’s script and emboldens the ensemble cast as its members share stories from that 1864 Civil War Christmas about the need then and now to “beat swords into plowshares.” These stories, which are the result of Ms. Vogel’s two years of research, transcend all boundaries of age, class, sex, race, religion, and politics. They are all stories of “redemption and release”
It is not possible to share all of the stories in “A Civil War Christmas” or highlight all of the engaging performances that bring these stories to levels of significant engagement with the members of the audience. This is one of the most generous casts imaginable: one actor or group of actors “passes off” to another seamlessly and proffers a visceral, visual and impassioned redemptive repast for “the sin sick soul.” These are stories of soldiers, slaves, freedmen, politicians, adult citizens, and children all ensnared in the complex web of the birthing of freedom.
Three narratives deserve special mention and stand out because of the exceptional quality of Paula Vogel’s writing, Tina Landau’s inventive direction, and the bravura performances delivered by “A Civil War Christmas’s” brilliant cast. All three are supported by the successful performances of Bob Stillman and Alice Ripley who, as Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, portray the collective unconscious of the nation finding its way forward to freedom.
The first narrative recounts Sgt. Decatur Bronson’s attempt to get a pass to his farm from which his wife Rose was kidnapped. K. Todd Freeman and Amber Iman infuse these characters – one in real time and one in memory – with a haunting realism. Amber Iman appears in the second narrative as Hannah who believes so strongly in President Lincoln that she travels from the South with her daughter Jessa to speak directly to him and claim her new life. When Jessa protests and wants to return home, Hannah proclaims, “It’s not home since they sold your father last week. It’s not Home if you and I can’t learn to read. It’s not Home if we can’t go up the road without a paper we couldn’t be taught to read saying we got permission to go up the road! So! We’re gonna find us a Home where I don’t have to watch your back when you get older. Or worry about the Master selling you. Mr. Lincoln said we’re free, and God gave us legs to walk.” Ms. Iman’s portrayal of hope resonates with the hope America embraces when Barack Obama is elected as President of the United States. Sumaya Boiuhbal is the powerhouse Jessa who performs and sings with skills beyond her years.
The final narrative is that of Walt Whitman’s role in this Christmas Eve saga. Portrayed with confident compassion by Sean Allan Krill, Whitman is overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington and decides to stay and work in the hospitals and stays in the city for eleven years. Whitman’s interaction with Moses Levy (Jonathan-David) anchors the play in the humanity needed to “bring the jubilee.”
There is one group missing from “A Civil War Christmas,” a group which now as then, years for peace on earth. It is somewhat surprising that Ms. Vogel did not include the LGBT community (there is a rich history of homosexuality during the War Between the States) especially since the role of Walt Whitman was featured so dramatically.
Also of interest, James Harlan, Senator during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, fired Walt Whitman from his job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior when Harlan discovered Whitman was the author of “Leaves of Grass.” There can be no peace on earth until all of God’s children are free and equal: equal in life, in love, in marriage, and in justice.
“A Civil War Christmas” goes the creative distance to inspire its audiences to take seriously the issues that divide the globe’s citizens one from another and to conspire to move forward to “build us a temple of freedom.”