In Play Reviews

It’s a busy Christmas Eve, 1864, in Washington, D.C. In a contentious recent election, Abraham Lincoln has been re-elected President. A slave, Hannah (Andrea Whittle) and her daughter Jessa (Miya Zolkoske) plan to cross the Potomac River from Maryland into the District of Columbia where they will be free.  John Wilkes Booth (Val Landrum) and his associates plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln (Ted Rooney). Union Army officers plot to keep General Grant sober. And Mary Todd Lincoln (Susannah Mars) must have a Christmas tree.

As if all this plotting weren’t enough, President Lincoln, seeking escape from his unruly cabinet, takes a dangerous and solitary ride through the winter night in search of gloves for Mrs. Lincoln. Decatur Bronson (Vin Shambry) beats his anvil and seethes with sorrow and rage over the taking of his wife by Confederate troops. Mrs. Keckley (Ayanna Berkshire) stitches garments for the First Lady and anchors the play like a Greek chorus. There is a caper with that infernal Christmas tree. Jessa hides in an alley.

It takes a large cast to bring Paula Vogel’s play A Civil War Christmas to the stage at Artists Repertory Theatre–many of the actors playing more than one role–but they do it with wild energy, gusto, and discordant beauty!

Fear and hope crawl into every corner of this 1864 world–and ours. No mistake, this is a very contemporary play about our shared history, our country’s issues, and our collective uncertainty. It gains dimension through the music, including familiar Christmas and 19th century traditional songs, often sung in minor keys. The effect is as jarring as it is at once rich and stark. With permission from the playwright, Artists Rep commissioned local musicians from various musical and cultural backgrounds–Okaidja Afroso, James Beaton, Darrell Grant, Brian Adrian Koch, Edna Vazquez, Holcombe Waller, and Mark and LaRhonda Steele–to re-arrange the original score by Daryl Waters. Under direction of Andrew Bray, the result is varied and stunning.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel really takes us for a ride here. Directed by Paul Angelo, with an excellent cast, the play shifts shapes and shifts again as it moves quickly through all strata of Washington, D.C. life. Says Angelo, “Paula Vogel gives us a story that celebrates the best of who we can be but never allow us to forget our work, as a people, is not finished.”

A Civil War Christmas run through December 23 at Artists Repertory Theatre.

Photo: Mrs. Keckly (Ayanna Berkshire), a slave who purchased her freedom and now is seamstress to the stars, including the First Lady, shares a moment with her lost son George (Blake Stone ) in A Civil War Christmas at Artists Repertory Theatre..

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