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Center Stage presents vibrant, affecting production of 'A Civil War Christmas'

By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

3:00 PM EST, November 29, 2013

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We have never really stopped fighting the Civil War. Probably never will. But, once in a while, maybe we can all agree that the things that once split the nation apart should not keep us apart now, that there are still things that ought to bind us together.

The winter holidays seem a particularly apt time for such reflection, a time when we tend to take stock, gather around families and friends, count blessings, put hope in the next year. All of which is to say that the Baltimore premiere of Paula Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas" in a soaring production at Center Stage couldn't be more welcome or relevant.

This inventive work mixes history, sentiment and music to create a panorama that pulls you quickly into the troubled world in and around the city of Washington in December 1864. Little is calm, little is bright as Christmas Eve arrives.

Lincoln wearily contemplates a second inaugural address and worries about finding the present he ordered from Paris for his wife. Mary Todd Lincoln frets over finding a Christmas tree to decorate in the White House. Her celebrated dressmaker, the former slave Elizabeth Keckley, is haunted by memories of her son, killed in the war a couple years earlier.

In a D.C. boarding house, John Wilkes Booth plots to kidnap Lincoln (a more drastic scheme would consume the actor soon enough). At camps along the Potomac, Union on one side, Confederate on the other, soldiers are on edge. An escaped slave and her young daughter risk all to reach the capital.

And, somewhere along the Virginia side of the river, a frisky horse detects the attractive scent of a mule on the opposite bank of the ice-caked Potomac and the two animals soon break into a love duet set to a tune from Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

Whoa. Where did that come from?

That’s just some of the humor the playwright weaves into her fanciful historic tapestry. "A Civil War Christmas" is no pedantic or preachy exercise in dates, names, places.

There could be moments when you might think it’s going to be that way — actors frequently break the fourth wall to deliver scene-setting or background-filling remarks — but the play keeps throwing you off balance, and keeps you absorbed in the intersection of multiple story lines.

Vogel clearly set out to tell an inclusive story. There's a rich range of the famous and obscure, powerful and weak. There's even room for a noncombatant Quaker and a Jewish Union soldier (coincidentally, Center Stage presented Matthew Lopez's fascinating play "The Whipping Man" about Southern Jews in the Civil War a couple seasons ago).

In one brief, telling vignette after another, a troubled chapter of our history springs to life in "A Civil War Christmas" with the simplest of theatrical means, enhanced by threads of familiar music. Parallels between 1864 and words and images from Christmas carols, spirituals and traditional American songs are continually, often poignantly drawn.

There's an affectionate quality about this work, a nostalgia not for how things were in those dangerous days, but for the traces of humanity that kept rising amid the war's horrific toll — an old poet spreading comfort in a military hospital; a black Union soldier stifling the urge to take revenge on the first Reb prisoner he gets; a community bonding in the search for a lost, endangered child (the latter scenario provides the play's most emotional, spirit-of-Christmas uplift).

The script also reminds us of how the past can repeat itself in many ways; some resounding zingers neatly target today's Washington.

The Center Stage production, directed with abundant nuance and a keen sense of momentum by Rebecca Taichman, serves the play beautifully.

With the house lights still up, the cast walks out in street clothes; audience and actors are, in that instant, intimately connected. Gradually, the performers don just enough costuming to establish characters as the action begins to unfold on a nearly bare stage designed by Dane Laffrey.

The theater's exposed brick wall becomes the only backdrop; shadows are frequently cast on it, part of Scott Zielinski's stylish lighting. The staging suggests a vintage radio show, with tables holding props for sound effects (good old-fashioned coconut halves, used to imitate horse hooves, are my favorite).

All of this transparency somehow makes the drama more, not less, real.

The same can be said for the subtle contributions of celebrated choreographer Liz Lerman. She does not have the actors dancing, exactly, but ensures that every move, singly or in ensemble, communicates richly. This is nowhere more evident than in a bittersweet scene anchored by the carol "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming."

The actors do all of the singing and do it well; some also add occasional instrumental accompaniment, complementing the solid work at the keyboard by music director Victor Simonson.

Jeffry Denman has the bearing and nuance for Lincoln. Kati Brazda is a vivid, sympathetic Mary Todd. As the first lady’s dressmaker Mrs. Keckley, Tracey Conyer Lee gives a particularly affecting performance, deeply connected to this gently noble character.

Oberon K.A. Adjepong shines as the black soldier Decatur Bronson, who owns his own farm, but not his fate. The actor is totally disarming in a flashback of Decatur learning to write from his future wife, winningly portrayed by Nicole Lewis, who is also terrific as the fleeing slave Hannah. Lewis has another great moment in one of the show’s most eloquent musical moments, partnering tenderly with Lee in "There Is a Balm in Gilead." 

A.J. Shively proves quite the charmer in a variety of roles, including that of a very communicative horse. There are lots of multiple assignments here, all fulfilled smoothly by a cast with no weak links.

Not everyone will find this play absorbing or fulfilling (I spotted some desertions before the second act on opening night), but "A Civil War Christmas" is a remarkably inventive achievement on many levels.

Vogel set out to provide an entertaining family show with an all-American story that could give Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" competition at this time of year. That's what she has done, right down to the inclusion of a few purposeful ghosts. She reminds us not just of the past, but what the future might allow if only we could hold onto "the better angels of our nature."

"A Civil War Christmas" runs through Dec. 22.