Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Those are three names that everyone knows now, names that put the lie to many cherished holiday songs about love and good will. Indeed, this year's Christmas carols feel more than slightly tarnished by distorted policing and legal systems in many communities that set cops and prosecutors against black and brown citizens.
Whether you support the police or grieve and protest for the victims in these awful encounters, you must know that our society needs to change and heal in order to move forward. Just like it was after the War Between the States. And if you wonder how it might have felt back then for the people involved—on Christmas Eve in Washington D.C., 1864—you get a strong sense of it in A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration, now at Dobama Theatre.
And a celebration it is, although not one filled with sugar plum fairies and cheesy snowfall effects from a Donny and Marie holiday TV special. Instead, the accomplished playwright Paula Vogel has thrown the tragedy of the Civil War onto her word loom and concocted a touching, sometimes humorous, and always affecting theatrical quilt of many tones.
As directed by Nathan Motta, the Dobama production is handsome without being fussy, focusing on the people—from Abraham Lincoln and the generals and soldiers to the slaves who were running for their freedom. These stories are wound around more than 20 songs in a rich musical landscape created by Daryl Waters, and it almost always works splendidly.
There are several storylines that Vogel highlights. Reelected President Lincoln (a very approachable Matthew Wright) is distracted since he has left his wife's gift in their summer cottage. He knows he must retrieve it, lest she go haywire, as she is wont to do. Juliette Regnier etches a vivid portrayal of the mentally troubled Mary Todd Lincoln, swinging from manic joyousness to morose depression as she keeps on keeping on. She is focused on putting up a Christmas tree (a new thought at that time), even though most of the pine trees around the capital city have gone up in smoke to keep soldiers warm.
While these plans go forward, soldiers from both armies are camped out on their respective sides of the Potomac River, shivering in the cold. With short and deft stokes, Vogel brings out the moods of General Ulysses S. Grant (Bob Keefe) and General Robert E. Lee (Tim Tavcar) as they pursue a war that each knows is already settled.
As for the soldiers themselves, we see it from both sides. Decatur Bronson (Nathan A. Lilly), an honored African-American fighter, has left his position in charge of a black regiment to work pounding out horseshoes for the Union army. He is haunted by the fact that his wife Rose (Katrice Headd) has been kidnapped from their home by Confederate forces, and he has pledged to kill any Gray soldiers he finds, in retribution. In a quieter moment, Lilly's scene with Headd, when she teaches Decatur to read, is sweet and amusing.
Not so sweet is John Wilkes Booth (given a steely and chilling turn by Matt O'Shea), who is plotting with his fellow conspirators. O'Shea also plays a particularly snarling member of Mosby's Raiders, a Confederate guerilla outfit intent on messing up the Union's supply lines.
Not enough plot for you yet? Well, there's also former slaves Hannah (Headd) and her daughter Jessa (Caris Collins) who are trying to reach the safety of Washington. And Elizabeth Keckley (Nicole Sumlin) a freewoman dressmaker who often has Mary Todd's ear. One of the signature musical moments is when Headd and Sumlin sing the lovely "There Is a Balm in Gilead."
Still more characters are played and sung well by Vincent Briley, Andrew Gombas, Natalie Green, Sally Groth, LaShawn Little and Brian Mueller. Some even contribute musically on instruments from guitars and banjos to a fiddle and harmonica. In other hands, this wildly diverse roster of characters might come across as unwieldy. But playwright Vogel knows how to tell stories efficiently, and director Motta has a firm hand on the production so everything fits into place.
There are some wrinkles, including a bit with a horse animated by two actors, vaudeville-style, that is more weird than funny. And the first act leaves so many threads dangling, one feels slightly at sea until Act Two pulls it all together.
The central set piece in Ben Needham's effective scenic design is a large turntable powered by up to four cast members, each bending their back into the effort. Ultimately, that turntable functions tellingly as a metaphor for the vicious circle of violent confrontations we all seem to be locked into at this moment.
In this play, carols such as "Silent Night" and O Christmas Tree" take on a different, more profound meaning. And they help us to imagine that we might all start pushing that vicious circle into a more positive shape.