Move over Scrooge and make room for Abraham Lincoln — and Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, to name but a few of the four-score-and-more characters in Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas,” a rich and moving play with music. Receiving its preem at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater, this historical tapestry could give Dickens a run for his holiday money as it taps into seasonal themes of redemption, forgiveness and community, with a decidedly American bent.
Show gets a stunning and panoramic production from helmer Tina Landau, who employs 14 actors playing a host of historic figures, large and small, in multiple narratives set in Washington, D.C., in 1864 as the Civil War winds down — but is far from over.
With the age of Obama beginning and the nation gripped with economic anxiety — plus a long war — the points and counterpoints between the two eras give the work a fuller subtext, making it a likely bet for future productions. Whether this becomes a classic for the ages or not, play is definitely one “Carol” worth telling and one America can claim as its own.
Such an ambitious, sweeping work could easily become overwhelmed in historic research, period ambience or too many thinly-drawn characters. But Vogel and Landau deftly balance poetry and prose, music and movement, story and theme in a well-crafted production that builds toward a heartfelt and holiday-appropriate conclusion.
A handful of strong story lines thread through the play as it follows a fugitive slave and her young daughter escaping to Washington; a rebel youth seeking to join a near-defeated Confederate force; and John Wilkes Booth’s plot to kidnap Lincoln as he shops for a gift for his wife.
Other compelling characters are stitched into this theatrical fabric. There’s a black Union sergeant bent on revenge; a Quaker soldier facing the challenges of religion and war; a black seamstress mourning her son; and, most poignantly, Mary Todd Lincoln in a state of emotional volatility.
Vogel artfully weaves historic details into the play, and, though the wealth of info at times verges on overload, the playwright pulls it together with economical writing that reflects the poetry of the day. She adds humor including an (almost) talking horse, and music and dance that tap into period spirituals and Christmas tunes.
Landau moves the performers — who remain on stage around James Schuette’s versatile rustic unit set — with speed, grace and imagination. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes and Scott Zielinski’s lighting also add to the visual palette. The ensemble is uniformly outstanding, notably J.D. Goldblatt, Marc Damon Johnson, Ora Jones, Jay Russell and Diane Sutherland.