BWW Review: Taproot Theatre's A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: A Beautiful House, Divided
"A Civil War Christmas" is a nice escape for folks that are getting a bit of a toothache from the glittery, schmaltzy, and sentimental Christmas plays foisted upon us this time of year. Written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel (for "How I Learned to Drive") with music by Daryl Waters, "A Civil War Christmas" is historical fiction circa 1864, a birds-eye view of Civil War-torn America. Infused with hymnals, Union and Confederate songs, and Christmas carols, this musical time capsule bursts at the seams with a myriad of storylines. From slave to president, from Confederate to Union, for better or for worse, Vogel made sure to not miss anybody in this theatric nativity.
Though the Emancipation Proclamation was signed the year before, America is still at war with itself. Scenic and sound designer Mark Lund brings to life the sepia-toned bleakness, cleverly projecting images above the action to establish setting. The whole show looks like its lit by candlelight. Jocelyne Fowler's on-point costume design further establishes setting, and all the hooped gowns are a delight to look at!
To describe what exactly happens in "A Civil War Christmas" is difficult: there are more than a dozen journeys and twenty-two primary characters. Taproot Theater's production is, in fact, an abridged version of the original, but still clocks in at around two hours.
It's all a bit hard to follow, but the look and feeling are there. Truly, Vogel's show feels more like a collection of scenes than a cohesive narrative. Taproot Theatre's production does not even make you feel like you need to make heads or tails of how the stories relate to one another because the singing and the nostalgic aesthetics are so attractive.
That said, there were distractingly disparate accents between folks in a way that does not feel intentional. Yes, America is a melting pot, but a dialect coach could have helped at least clarify where some of these characters were from.
My question is this: does the excuse of a production being a Christmas show give you a pass to smooth over messy, ugly, realistic aspects of a story in the name of the holidays? For example, Robert E. Lee is written into the production very briefly, where he is portrayed as this Southern gentleman refusing coffee in solidarity with subordinate soldiers. But this man was fighting to own people as slaves. Same too with Marianna de Fazio's character Raz, the plucky, young scout and wannabe army hero who fights to own people as slaves. The show merely alludes to the blood and gore of the war, and the deceased are seen in the form of ghosts (vis-à-vis "A Christmas Carol"). Ironing out sordid aspects in a Civil War show seemingly because it's a Christmas show may or may not prove bothersome for audience members (can you tell if it bothers me?).
There are dozens of characters portrayed by the this thirteen-member cast, but some standout performances include Maya Burton's portrayal of gallant Hannah (Jessa's mother), Marianna de Fazio's portrayal of spunky Raz (which is very confusing to find endearing), Marianne Savell's open-hearted portrayal of Mary Todd, and Tyler Trerise's portrayal of vengeful Decatur Bronson (plus every other character he portrays in the show).
Co-directors Karen Lund and Faith Bennett Russell create an impressive amount of cohesion out of what is basically a narrative montage. It's a different kind of Christmas show that still retains some of the pitfalls of schmaltzy Christmas shows. Though Christmas did not solve all of the character's problems, the contrast of Christmas' jolly associations with the play's harsher realities added some insult to these characters' injuries.
I give Taproot Theatre's "A Civil War Christmas" a slightly muddled but earnest B. Strong performances and set design elevate a scattered narrative.
"A Civil War Christmas" performs at the Taproot Theatre through December 30, 2017. For tickets and information, visit them online at www.taproottheatre.org.