Paula Vogel loses her way with new Christmas play at Center Stage

A Civil War Christmas

By Paula Vogel

Through Dec. 22 at Center Stage

Have you ever seen one of those historical pageants put on by museums, high schools, or small-town centennials? You know, the ones where actors portraying famous figures and average citizens rely on short vignettes and direct-address narration to convey information about the past? The brief, disconnected scenes are always more interested in ticking off items on a list of important events and themes than in establishing any narrative momentum or character development. To camouflage this lack of continuity, the pageant usually adds lots of musical numbers. It's a perfect storm of good intentions and bad theater.

A Civil War Christmas, now at Center Stage, is a more polished, more professional version of such a pageant. Set in Washington and on the nearby banks of the Potomac River in 1864, on the last Christmas Eve of the Civil War, the show offers us Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Robert E. Lee, and John Wilkes Booth, along with escaped slaves, a Confederate volunteer, a Jewish soldier, a Quaker abolitionist, free black business owners, a mule, and a horse. Lots of historical information is delivered but very little suspense or psychology.

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of A Civil War Christmas as a jukebox musical, like Ain't Misbehavin' or Smokey Joe's Café. Instead of the songs of Fats Waller or Leiber and Stoller, however, the show focuses on the hits and holiday songs of 1864. Those of you who weren't around in 1864 will probably be baffled by the nostalgic appeal of this repertoire. The Center Stage production is stuffed with 25 such songs, often prompted by narrative devices as flimsy as those in any jukebox musical.

And while shows such as Million Dollar Quartet and We Will Rock You are cast with singers who can act a little, A Civil War Christmas is cast with actors who can sing a little. This decision seems curious considering that the songs are better-written than the dialogue. The script's weakness is especially surprising, for it was written by Paula Vogel, the gifted playwright who has given us such spellbinding works as How I Learned to Drive and The Baltimore Waltz. She has lost her way here.

For this production, the big downstairs stage at Center Stage has been stripped back to the rear brick wall with the electrical conduits exposed. Seated at a baby grand piano at the center rear is musical director Victor Simonson, who not only accompanies the songs quite ably but also provides background music for the scenes by playing his own piano and snare drum and by directing the actors who occasionally pick up a guitar, viola, or African drum. In each rear corner is a table filled with sound-effect devices that the actors employ in full view.

The six actors and one cross-dressing actress wear simple black 19th-century coats, while four actresses wear floor-length dresses of the same period. Except for Kati Brazda as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tracey Conyer Lee as Mrs. Keckley, every performer takes on multiple roles. For example, Jeffry Denman, tall and hollow-cheeked but strangely beardless, plays Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Robert E. Lee, and an army mule. He carries himself with impressive dignity but provides no new insights into any of his characters. How could he when he is forced to deliver almost as much narration as dialogue?

Will Booth (Matthew Greer) succeed in kidnapping Lincoln on Christmas Eve, 1864? Will a runaway teenager (Andrea Goss) slip through Union lines to join the Confederate cavalry known as Mosby's Raiders? Will two escaped slaves-a mother (Nicole Lewis) and daughter (played variously by Mackenzie Kristine Jarrett and Sierra Sila Weems) separated at a bridge across the Potomac-succeed in reuniting in the bewildering big city of Washington? Will an African-American sergeant (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) find his wife kidnapped by slave catchers? Will he carry out violent retribution on a Confederate prisoner?

Will Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln be able to secure last-minute Christmas presents for one another? Will Mrs. Lincoln be able to pay off her mounting debts before her husband finds out? Will Mrs. Keckley be able to stop dreaming of her dead soldier son by becoming Washington's leading seamstress? Will a dying soldier (A.J. Shively) ever see his friendly nurse Walt Whitman again? Will the last Christmas tree in Washington end up at the White House or at a home for African-American women and children? Will a Confederate horse and a Union mule consummate their romance?

We might have been able to care about the answers to two or three of these questions if enough of the other questions and songs had been pared away to allow a few narrative lines to develop in depth. As it is, however, there are too many underdeveloped characters and too many undernourished plot lines interrupted by too many songs to care about any of it.

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