We’ve all heard stories about soldiers during World War I ceasing hostilities, leaving their foxholes and sharing Christmas dinner with soldiers on the other side.
Playwright Paula Vogel imagines something similar in her play with music “A Civil War Christmas,” in which a multitude of characters (played by a cast of nine plus a small chorus) appear in a series of short vignettes about Christmas 1864.
The show takes place mostly in and around Washington, D.C., where Mary Todd Lincoln (Annie Hinton) is looking for a Christmas tree. The President (Skyler Sullivan), reminded of the date, frets about his gift for Mary. Jessa (Cashae Monya), a young black girl separated from her mother Hannah (Taylor Henderson) at a north/south checkpoint, wanders the streets of DC, looking for “the President’s house” where she is to meet mom. And a seriously wounded soldier (Adam Cuppy), offloaded and abandoned at the wharf, needs help and a trip to the hospital.
These are some of the throughlines in this show that weaves these stories and music – carols, spirituals, and Civil War songs – into a crazy quilt script of the season and time. Grant, Lee and other soldiers and functionaries on both sides of the war are here as well, along with just plain folks.
It’s tough to get a handle on the dozens of characters wandering in and out (including the assassination conspirators, who would be successful within four months of the time of this show). Take my advice and don’t bother trying. Just watch for the themes: race, women’s rights, slavery, human kindness – and listen to the songs, led by pianist Tim McKnight and assisted by fiddler Kristopher Apple.
Several of the overworked actors deserve special mention. Cashae Monya does a particularly moving turn as Jessa and several other characters. Julia Nardi-Loving effectively plays young rebel Raz and several others.
Adam Cuppy shows incredible versatility as both a Lincoln functionary and a horse (no connection intended), and many other characters. Another amusing character is a mule, and when horse spies mule, a love aria from “Turandot” plays.
Durwood Murray is memorable as a stalwart Union blacksmith agonizing over the kidnapping of his wife Rose by Confederate soldiers. He also plays several others.
Brian Bose is terrific in several roles. Skyler Sullivan has the height but not the delivery of Abraham Lincoln. Annie Hinton plays Mary Todd Lincoln (and several others) effectively. Taylor Henderson has a fine turn as Mrs. Lincoln’s African American dressmaker and confidante Mrs. Keckley and several others. The chorus (the Encore Vocal Ensemble) sings from behind a scrim, making musical timing even more difficult.
But it’s all a bit dizzying, and the minimal staging doesn’t make it any easier for Director Kim Strassburger to get the continuity across, nor for the cast and chorus (the Encore Vocal Ensemble) to coordinate the musical timing.
A Christmas show other than “A Christmas Carol” is always welcome. This one needs some tightening and could lose some characters, but it’s an interesting entry.
“A Civil War Christmas” plays through January 3, 2016 at Diversionary Theatre’s Mainstage, 4545 Park Boulevard.
Thursday at 7 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm
Tickets: (619) 220-0097 or www.diversionary.org