Historical plays too often are intrusively didactic, massively lengthy and emotionally rigid. Yet “A Civil War Christmas,” running through December 13 at the Huntington Theatre Company’s B.U. Theatre, presents American history with a charm and delight that should inspire every secondary school textbook. Told through the eyes of those rarely heard in mainstream history, the performance highlights the experiences of the common man during the aftermath of the American Civil War while maintaining the traditional appeal of a Christmas play.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (How I learned to Drive, 1997) Paula Vogel and directed by Jessica Thebus, A Civil War Christmas weaves numerous stories, Christmas carols and Civil War songs, materializing like a Dickensian pop-up book. A simple set consisting of a wooden platform center stage, a battered American flag backdrop and minimal props presented with quirky sound and stage effects invite the audience to let their imaginations take over. A talented multicultural cast of twelve manages to weave through the plays plentiful anecdotes and characters with grace.
Set in Washington D.C. on a cold Christmas Eve in 1864, the play follows the lives of multiple fictional and non-fictional characters all experiencing loss and seeking renewal following the repercussions of the war. While Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Ulysses S. Grant all make appearances, the story is illuminated by its portrayal of more common individuals, including members of the black community whose stories have been overshadowed by the larger than life heroes of history. Vogel brings together African-American soldiers, runaway slaves, mothers, wives and daughters of soldiers in a celebration of hope amidst devastation.
While there are more characters and storylines than can easily be followed, the plot centers around a group of women who provide a base of strength (both to the plays characters and to the production). Hannah (Uzo Aduba), a mother and a runaway slave makes a journey up north with her daughter Jessa (Hyacinth Tauriac, who alternates in the role with Alanna T. Logan) to escape looming slave catchers. Elizabeth Keckley (Jacqui Parker) mourns the death her son George in battle while balancing her duties as White House seamstress. Mary Todd Lincoln (Karen MacDonald), still mourning the death four years earlier of her young son Edward, tries to recover her reputation as first lady. Throughout each of these performances, these women balance the haunting memories of loss while aspiring for betterment.
The most enlighten element of the play is the equal ground maintained between all of its characters regardless of their place in society. The great President Lincoln (Ken Cheeseman) is presented as an awkward and peculiar man with a big heart. He stumbles upon everyday individuals, including a lost little Jessa, offering plainspoken openness and sincerity that one normally would not expect from an American president. Director Jessica Thebus maintains this equal ground amongst characters by varying the roles of the twelve actors. Ken Cheeseman’s offsets his role as the noble though clumsy Lincoln with, as all things, the noble and clumsy horse, Silver. Likewise, Uzo Aduba and Jacqui Parker who play a runaway slave and loyal servant respectively also jump into the role of the hearty men in President Lincoln’s cabinet.
A few narrative elements do get in the way of this otherwise entertaining endeavor. While the play offers the audience many tickling and emotional bits, the playwright’s voiceover narrative style does interrupt many potentially moving moments that would have been stronger if left performed by the actors. Similarly, Vogel introduces a number of conflicts within each character that are not resolved within the play but instead interrupted by the abrupt songs of celebration. Most jarringly, she has placed the impending assassination of President Lincoln as a central tension throughout the play — Hannah hangs her hope for freedom and opportunity for her daughter on his presidency, Elizabeth Keckley continuously speaks of an odd feeling in the air when she thinks of the Lincolns, three men speak openly of plotting his assassination — yet the play ends abruptly with the Christmas celebration, leaving the audience yearning for true resolution. It’s a strange dramatic choice.
Vogel, however, succeeds at her central aim, not to offer us a history lesson, but to present a part of history to us in a new light.