Directed by Tina Landau with sincere simplicity, Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S, Grant, and a little African American girl named Jesse, are just some of the beloved characters now inhabiting the NY Theatre Workshop stage. Most Christmas entertainments tend to be tacky and dripping with red and gold tinsel. Not so with Paula Vogel's “A Civil War Christmas.” I saw this pageant-like play with music at Long Wharf in 2008, and thought it a little too busy. With Christmas Carols and hymns sung beautifully (Music supervised, arranged and orchestrated by Daryl Waters) winding their way through the various plots, The NY Theatre Workshop's present production is lovely even if it seems a little skimpy. The spacious stage that accommodates many spare scene changes (Set- James Schuette, Lighting- Scott Zielinski), as well as all the different costumes of the period- Toni-Leslie James- hanging along one wall, could hold many more than the eleven cast members who play over 30 parts!
The time is Christmas Eve, 1864, the final Christmas of the Civil War; the place, Washington, D.C. It is freezing cold and snowy. Lincoln, played oh so well by Bob Stillman, is dealing with his generals and their final battles, while trying to placate his anxiety-ridden wife, Mary, the very fine Alice Ripley. She is riddled with grief, having just lost her son, Willie, two years before. Despite the fact that she's been told to stop her spending, she wants the latest trend, a Christmas tree brought over from Bavaria. Her true friendship with the dressmaker and freed slave, Elizabeth Keckley, the powerful Karen Kandel, is most interesting.
While they are shopping, Hannah, a slave (Amber Iman), in a heart-breaking scene, is fleeing the South with her daughter, Jesse, played superbly by Sumaya Bouhbal. Remember that name. We will surely be seeing her again. This charming-looking child possesses remarkable presence and a beautifully strong voice. Hannah sends Jesse across the border to escape the slave-catchers and her disappearance keeps a pulse going in the second act, as the entire community looks for her. As this is unfolding, the bad guys, Mary Suratt and John Wilkes Booth, a sinister Sean Allan Krill, are planning their attacks
The balance between the generals, an alcoholic Grant (Chris Henry) and a stalwart Lee (Krill), the former slaves and soldiers played by K. Todd Freeman and Antwan Hopper, give “A Civil WarChristmas” a feeling of authenticity. There have been some judicious edits, one of which I suggested in my original review. Now I am not sure it was a good idea. In one of the scenes, a young Jewish soldier, Moses Levy, is dying; they bring him a Menorah and he lights the candles and recite the blessings. That has been eliminated. Since Hanukkah is upon us, it could be good to reinstate.
There is no mention of it here, but Mary Todd Lincoln's sister was named Elizabeth Edwards!
“A Civil War Christmas” is a worthwhile way to celebrate the holiday and will play only at the NY Theatre Workshop through December 30.