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“A Civil War Christmas,” a massive and impressive undertaking at Dobama

“A Civil War Christmas,” a massive and impressive undertaking at Dobama

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel is noted for crafting play scripts which impact directly on the lives of people.  A review of her works illustrates that  she writes about issues that need to be expressed (AIDS, sexual abuse, prostitution, degradation of the individual), she favors writing about emotional circumstances which she expresses in narrative structures, and her works contain theatrical requirements that make for better viewing, than reading.

Her “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration,” which was written over a ten-year period, reflects her focus on direct impact of situations and experiences on the lives of people.

The epic drama, which is set on Christmas Eve, 1864, in Washington, D.C., centers on the lives of about a dozen characters, some real (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth and Clara Barton), some compositions which allude to real people, and purely fiction beings.  There is a multi-religious message, as well as historical tales.  It highlights community and family values (e.g., deep dedication of Southerners regarding their cause, even when faced with certain defeat; the confusion on the part of the slaves of what it meant to be free; the conflict between religious convictions and national pride.)

The musical interludes contain slave songs, spirituals, code songs (melodies of the Underground railroad intended to give directions to Blacks who were attempting to flee to the North, on whether it was safe to travel by land or waterways), as well as traditional Americana tunes, carols, and even a Hebrew prayer.

Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of seeing victory within reach of the union, frets over the gloves he bought for his wife, which were left at the family’s summer home; John Wilkes Booth schemes to capture the president; a Quaker questions whether he could kill someone if forced to do so; bi-polar Mary Lincoln fusses and fumes over obtaining a holiday tree, her need for a new dress, mourning the death of her son, and balancing her over-extended budget; a black Union solder wants revenge against the Rebels for kidnapping his wife; a young black girl wanders the frigid streets of D.C. in search of her mother and a place to stay.

The story of nation, family, reconciliation and communal hope, spotlights familiar themes, often in a code that only a keen viewer will grasp.  The mother and child, like the Jesus story, are refused entrance to their home (the nation’s capital), the child is swaddled in straw (in this case, in a shipping container), and is found by a group of do-gooders (much like the Wise Men).   A delirious wounded Jewish young man hears the songs of the “Kaddish” (the prayer for the dead) sung as he confuses a hallucination of poet Walt Whitman, who was noted for visiting the wounded Union soldiers, as a vision who is looking out for him.  “Marching Through Georgia,” the fevered Confederate battle cry blasts forth in pride, even though the South has lost what they called “the war of Northern aggression,” a war that is still being fought today in the minds of some.  The Black experience on both sides of the conflict center on what has changed, what will change and what will stay the same.  The race card issue is very much in the present day news.

This is not a historical play as many of the “facts” are not “facts,’ per se, but Vogel will not allow the audience to ignore that that war, and the trauma it left behind is still present.

Dobama has taken on a major task in producing “A Civil War Christmas:  An American Musical Celebration.”  Not only does the production require 15 skilled actors who portray 60 characters, each character requires a number of unique costumes.  In order to visually transport the audience from each of the 64 scenes to the other, a massive turntable had to be constructed.  Props are numerous.  Special lighting effects were present.  This is the most expensive and probably the most complex show that Dobama has ever produced.

Director Nathan Motta has succeeded in master-planning the epic tale.  Nothing short of using an Excel spreadsheet could have solved how to keep track of all the characters and where they should be on and off stage at all times, as well as the numerous props and multitude of lighting changes.

The technical aspects of the show were as complex as the staging.  Ben Needham’s set designs, Marcus Dana’s lighting, Richard Ingraham’s sound design, Mark Jenks’ puppets, Jeremy Dobbins’ projection designs, and Tesia Dugan Benson’s costumes all added to the epic feel and images of the production.

Daryl Waters’ musical arrangements were well honed.  Especially effective were the singing of the spirituals and the counterpoint of “Kaddish”/”Silent Night,” and the musical sounds of Jordan Cooper and the orchestra.

The cast was universally outstanding.  Curtain calls to Vincent Briley (Willy Mack), precocious Caris Collins (Jessa), Andrew Gombas (Moses Levy/Chester Saunders), Natalie Green (RAZ), Sally Groth (Clara Barton), Katrice Headd (Hannah), Bob Keefe (Ulysses S. Grant), Nathan Lilly (Bronson), Lashawn Little (Jim Wormley), Brian Mueller (John Surrat), ), Matt O’Shea (Johns Wilkes Booth), Sally Field’s look and-sound-a-like Juliette Regnier (Mary Todd Lincoln), Nicole Sumlin (Elizabeth Keckley), Tim Tavcar (Robert E. Lee), and Matthew Wright (Lincoln).

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  Audiences looking for an alternative to the usual escapist holiday treats have an opportunity to attend “A Civil War Christmas:  An American Musical Celebration, ” and broaden their knowledge of a series of historical and fictional events, which should challenge their thinking, while helping place some of the current legal and ethical issues in a broad perspective.  The production is stronger than the content, but it is a show well worth seeing.

“A Civil War Christmas:  An American Musical Celebration” runs through January 4, 2015, at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.