Christmas Eve, 1864. It’s a bitterly cold Christmas Eve on the banks of the Potomac River, where the lives of abolitionists, assassins, soldiers, enslaved and free, are woven together in an American tapestry. In their darkest hour, when peace seems impossible, the promise of Christmas breaks through despair in pageant of hope and peace.
And so it begins—Pulitzer-Prize winner Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration” at Taproot Theatre Company through Dec 30th.
Co-directed by Karen Lund and Faith Bennett Russell, “A Civil War Christmas” is not your usual Christmas pageant. The play’s nontraditional format creates a collage of dream-like tableaus, rather than typical acts and scenes. It is playwright Vogel’s snapshot of American history, at a time, when like now, our country was in considerable disarray.
An ensemble of actors play multiple characters–21 named characters as well as twice that number who go unnamed–representing different races, religions, and backgrounds. And each one has a story.
“A Civil War Christmas” takes place in and around Washington, D.C, on the night of Christmas Eve, 1864. A year after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and a year before Lincoln’s second inauguration and subsequent assassination. The nation was torn by war, and characters were individually and collectively chased by personal and political demons.
The story lines unfold in a series of mostly very short scenes that move from reality to flashback to dream. Abraham Lincoln frets over the present he bought for his high-strung wife, while Mary Lincoln is in a tizzy over a tree. Not far away, John Wilkes Booth schemes to capture the president.
A furious black Union soldier vows vengeance on Confederate soldiers for kidnapping his free wife. A young rebel challenges a Union blacksmith’s mercy. An escaped slave loses her daughter on the frigid streets of the war-weary American capital, just before finding freedom. A seriously wounded soldier abandoned at the wharf, needs help and a trip to the hospital. And for comedy relief, an actor portrays a frisky horse catching the scent of a nearby mule–played by another actor. And these are only a few of the stories.
In Vogel’s pageant, real historical figures, such as Lincoln and his wife, John Wilkes Booth, Robert E. Lee and General Sherman, the nurse Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and Elizabeth Keckley (a former slave and Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress and confidant) freely interact with fictional characters (just plain folks) in this American quilt of the season and time.
There are also quasi-historical figures that enlighten us on little-known aspects of the Civil War. These include the young Jewish Union soldier Moses Levy, based on the real-life Benjamin Levy, and Chester, a young Quaker who joined the Union army because of his abolitionist beliefs, but had a noncombatant role due to his religious beliefs.
Vogel’s characters come and go, often in round dances of the period and sometimes under cover of fog. The score blends traditional Christmas carols, spirituals, folk songs, new music, and several metaphors involving three Wise Men, and the North Star. The through-lines weave these stories and music with a multitude of characters and short vignettes about Christmas 1864. A particularly moving musical number blends “Silent Night” with “Kaddish,” a Jewish prayer. The other veterans in the hospital sit up, pull their blankets over their heads like prayer shawls, and sing a mourner’s Kaddish, as Levy lay dying.
Vogel may have been inspired by the 1992 film, “A Midnight Clear,” about American GI’s during World War II ceasing hostilities to share Christmas dinner with German soldiers.
The overall message of her musical allegory, “A Civil War Christmas,” is one of hope. Hope that even after 150 years our society is still deeply divided, we might be able to overcome, or at least, put aside our differences and come together in peace.
“A Civil War Christmas” runs November 22 – December 30, 2017 at Taproot Theatre; tickets range from $28-$50; discounted Tickets for the Senior Matinee are $26 but cannot be purchased online; discounts available for groups of 8 or more by calling 206.781.9708 or by visiting taproottheatre.org/group-sales. NOTE: Special dinner and theater performances on December 6 & 7; tickets for December 6 are $80 per person; tickets for December 7 are $85 per person. Please note: If you have any food allergies notify the Box Office if purchasing by phone, or include your allergy in the Notes section online. No discounts are available on this package; There are no shows on Thanksgiving (November 23), Christmas Eve (December 24) or Christmas Day (December 25); AGE RECOMMENDATION: 12 & up.
“A Civil War Christmas” Character Breakdown:
DECATUR BRONSON (Male, 20s-30s, African-American): A strong, intelligent, passionate Sergeant in the Union’s Colored Infantry. Carries a heavy grudge for the kidnappers of his late wife. His motto is “Take No Prisoners.”
ELIZABETH KECKLEY (Female, 30s-40s, African-American): Mary Todd Lincoln’s companion; an expert with the needle, she has bought her life as a freewoman one stitch at a time. A thoughtful, introspective, caring woman who spent her childhood as a slave and lost her only son in the war.
MARY TODD LINCOLN (Female, 40s-50s, Caucasian): a devoted wife and mother, she also suffers from headaches and bouts with depression. She confides in her dear friend Keckley, and worries about her husband’s leadership in the war effort.
JOHN WILKES BOOTH (Male, 20s-40s, Caucasian): Lincoln’s assassin; an ambitious and passionate confederate conspirator; also a well-known stage actor.
CHESTER MANTON SAUNDERS (Male, 20s-30s): A young Quaker pacifist abolitionist in the Union army. Does not believe in war, but believes in the “divine spark in every man.” Deeply religious, he cares passionately about the abolitionist cause.
HANNAH (Female, 20s-40s, African-American): An runaway slave escaping with her young daughter. Desperate for her daughter’s freedom and safety.
RAZ (Male, 12-17, Caucasian): A young ambitious confederate determined to fight with the Mosby Raiders, even if it costs him everything.
WIDOW MARY SURRATT (Female, 30s-40s): An ardent Confederate activist, she owns the boarding house where conspirators meet to plot the assassination of President Lincoln.
ANNA SURRATT (Female, 12-22): Daughter of Mary Surratt, part of a family of conspirators seeking the assassination of President Lincoln. A sweet girl devoted to her mother.
JAMES WORMLEY (male, 50s-60s, African American): a successful Washington DC merchant, born a freeman. Describes himself as “shopkeeper, hack carriage company owner and all-around entrepreneur”
FREDERICK WORMLEY (male, teens-20s) son of James Wormley
JIM WORMLEY (male, teens-20s) son of James Wormley
MOSES LEVY (Male, 20s-30s, Jewish) a wounded soldier who longs for his faith at Christmastime and who feverishly foretells Lincoln’s assassination
ROSE (Female, 20s-30s, African-American): A smart and beautiful young freewoman who taught her husband to read. Appears as a memory/spirit that haunts Bronson.
WALT WHITMAN (Male, 40s-50s, Caucasian): an important humanist poet who is known to visit wounded and dying soldiers in the hospital. He is a source of encouragement and friendship to many.
SECRETARY OF WAR, EDWIN STANTON (Male, 50s): a tough, efficient, and brilliant military mind whose strategies brought the Union Army to victory. He lost several members of his family to disease and suicide before throwing himself into his legal work and working determinedly in the Lincoln administration.
WARD HILL LAMON (Male, 20s-40s): Lincoln’s bodyguard and head of security; sees danger everywhere because “danger is everywhere to be seen.”
GEORGE (Male, 20s-30s): Keckley’s only son, “light-skinned enough to pass as a white man,” he secretly enlisted in the Union Army when his mother sent him away to college. Dying in the first battle he fought, he appears to Keckley as a ghost/memory throughout the play.
JESSA (Female, 5-14, African-American): following her mother as they escape slavery and head north into Washington DC. A brave and trusting young woman.
LITTLE JOE (Male, 5-12), a young slave boy who gets sold in the family’s attempt to recover from financial ruin.
ROBERT E. LEE (Male, 50s-60s): General of the Army of Northern Virginia, leader of the Confederate cause, his surrender effectively ended the Civil War. He is a passionate leader, who does not seek privileges over his soldiers.
ULYSSES S. GRANT (Male, 40s, Caucasian): the Union general who led the north to victory. He is weary of the war, but determined in his cause.
Playwright Paula Vogel
Paula Vogel’s play, “How I Learned to Drive,” won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Lortel, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critics Awards for Best Play, and an Obie Award. Her screenplay adaptation has been in development for HBO. Paula Vogel’s other plays include The Long Christmas Ride Home, The Mineola Twins, The Baltimore Waltz, Hot N Throbbing, Desdemona, And Baby Makes Seven and The Oldest Profession. Paula Vogel has received the Rhode Island Pell Award in the Arts, the Hull-Warriner Award, the PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award, the Pew Charitable Trust Senior Award, a Guggenheim, an AT&T New Plays Award, the Fund for New American Plays, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center Fellowship, several National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, the McKnight Fellowship, MacDowell Colony residencies, the Susan Smith Blackburn Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize in Literature. In addition, she is the Adele Kellenberg Seaver Professor of Creative Writing at Brown University, directing the MFA Playwriting program.
Dedra D. Woods
Marianna de Fazio
Hazel Rose Gibson
Karen Lund – Co-Director
Faith Bennett Russell – Co-Director
Edd Key – Music Director
Mark Lund – Scenic & Sound Design
Jocelyne Fowler – Costume Design
Kent Cubbage – Lighting Design