Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells”—penned during the final year of the American Civil War—has morphed with time into “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” a familiar carol celebrating peace on earth. But we don’t often hear the darker verses of his poem. Mourning the crippling injury his son Charles suffered in the war, Longfellow wrote, “And in despair I bowed my head, ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.”
History Theatre’s regional premier of A Civil War Christmas opens with Longfellow’s poem—despairing lines included—and goes on to tell a story of several Americans (roughly 90 characters played by a cast of 14) trying to celebrate the holiday in the face of what remains the most brutal and devastating war in this country’s history. The characters include John Wilkes Booth (David Maga), a recently freed slave (Lynnea Monique Doublette) and her daughter (Kiara Smythe), a boy from the south (Jen Rand), and Mary Todd Lincoln (Jan Lee).
If this seems like the recipe for a scattered plot, it is. With so many characters to manage and so much ground to cover, the play jumps from storyline to storyline with uncomfortable speed. The stories do coalesce eventually (it’s not just a series of unrelated vignettes), but it takes a while to feel settled and make the connections.
The music, though, quells any uneasiness regarding plot overload. A Civil War Christmas is not a musical in the traditional sense, but is filled with Christmas carols, spirituals, and war ballads masterfully directed by local darling J. D. Steele. The actors sing and play their own instruments on stage. Composer Daryl Waters wrote very little new material—only an occasional verse change to accommodate the plot. Jackson Hurst’s rendition of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” is as lively as any Broadway show tune. And while you may not normally consider “Silent Night” a show-stopper, Jan Lee (as Mary Todd Lincoln) sings the carol to a dying Jewish soldier in a voice that could melt the ice clean off the Potomac River. If she doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, I recommend checking your pulse to make sure you have a heart.
The well-rounded ensemble manages the enormous cast of characters well; there’s only one performer who plays a single character—every other actor tackles anywhere from two to eight. (Lee repeatedly switches between Mary Todd Lincoln and Silver the horse in a way that it is comical without being absurd.) Most of the actors excel, but Jen Rand is a particular gem as Raz, the boy who tries to join the Confederate Army and winds up in a sticky situation that precipitates the nail-biting climax of the play.
Despite the ambitious plot, A Civil War Christmas does not try to do too much otherwise. Michael Wangen’s lighting is just enough to work without creating distraction, and Joel Sass’s set is nearly as simple, allowing the performers to work with a relatively small stage, considering how much action takes place at once. Austene Van’s direction embraces the small space and makes it feel intimate rather than crowded. With only a little less professionalism and craftsmanship, the constant bustle could be disastrous, but instead the motion onstage flows seamlessly.
A Civil War Christmas offers, at the very least, a history lesson with the backdrop of excellent music. But it’s also more than that—it’s a healthy reminder that our lives are only as bad as we allow them to be. The characters of the play manage to find joy in the midst of what should be overpowering despair. As Mary Todd Lincoln puts it, “They had the hope of peace, which may be sweeter than peace itself.”
|This production is featured in the Daily Planet’s complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you’ll know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.|
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