Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas, at New York Theatre Workshop, unfurls on December 24, 1864—a few months before General Robert E. Lee’s surrender would conclude the War Between the States. But on that blustery day, peace on earth and good will toward men still remained in short supply. Reaching back nearly 150 years, Vogel’s tender historical pageant weaves together real events and imagined fables, underscored with carols, spirituals, and folk tunes, beautifully arranged by Daryl Waters.
A divisive conflict that left over a million dead may not seem matter to warm the cockles. Other holiday entertainments, Elf, say, or The Nutcracker, manage just fine without repeating rifles and mortally wounded soldiers. But Vogel insists, in a manner mostly free of gush and treacle, that it’s precisely in turbulent times that we most need the comforts of the season—a small gift, a kind act, a song.
Director Tina Landau has assembled a cast of 11, assorted in age and shade, all of whom perform multiple roles, aided by Toni-Leslie James’s flexible costumes. The bluff Sean Allan Krill, for example, plays not only Lee, but also his scourge William T. Sherman, chief of security Ward Hill Lamon, the assassin John Wilkes Booth, and for good measure Walt Whitman. Alice Ripley, having won a Tony playing one bipolar woman in Next to Normal, has a go at another, Mary Todd Lincoln. The luminous Karen Kandel appears as her friend, the African American dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley.
Vogel’s narrative generosity and desire for historical sweep sometimes run away with her. Subplots and minor characters force a slump in the middle, just when the piece should march most vigorously. Still, a tighter structure might elide the fine moments when the past echo into the present, as when a president (Bob Stillman’s Lincoln) debates how to conduct a second term in a Washington that has never seemed “more partisan, more conspiratorial.” And you would be hard pressed to cut even a single song—though “O, Christmas Tree” may not require quite so many reprises. Come All Ye Faithful? Until the run ends on December 30, just come.