We saw #Taproot Theatre’s production of “A Civil War Christmas” last night, and I have to say, I wanted to like this more, but could not. This was not due to the sets, the lighting, the staging, the choreography, the sound, the music, costumes, or the actors—all which were competent and professional. It was the book that was weak, and all the best efforts of the cast to bring the story to life did not work. To be clear, this is not a bad production or even a bad play. It is just a weak book with an enthusiasm for story not matched by a skill for storytelling.
We open on a few days before Christmas in Washington DC, in 1864. It is cold and drained, with the endless Civil War slogging on through yet another Christian holiday in a nation of Christians riven by Christian slavers, Christian abolitionists, and Christians who simply want to be free. There is so much available there for the story, and indeed the play opens with R. E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, and Abraham Lincoln all singing of their hopes for peace and restoration. Then Lee and Grant disappear, never to be seen again on stage.
The stories of others at Christmas then take the stage, each lightly connected, if at all, to the others. Mrs. Lincoln must find a Christmas tree, and so must her seamstress, a lady of color who does high fashion for the ladies of power. Decatur Bronson member of the United States Colored Troop seeks revenge on the break-away rebels who kidnapped his freeborn wife. Mrs. Keckley must finish her work on finery for the ladies. Hannah, an escaped slave and her daughter must cross over to Washington DC from the southern banks of the Potomac. And these are just the story lines I can remember as distinct from the other story lines included—John Wilkes Booth and his merry band of madcap assassins plot to kidnap Lincoln, Sherman marches through Georgia, a storeowner and his sons serving the Negro community must find a Christmas tree for Mrs. Keckley, Mrs. Surrat and Mrs. Lincoln meet and exchange Christmas greetings….
There is just too much packed into this play for there to be any breathing room or time for contemplation. While it is good for a play not to be static and lose the audience’s interest, it is also good for a play to have rhythm and rest, moments for us and the characters to think and reflect.
I want to mention the fine cast who did an excellent job attempting to bring these multiple stories to life. Because there are more roles than cast members, each actor took on multiple roles, and did so in quick succession, leaving the stage as one role and returning moments later as another; in some cases, changing costume on stage to assume another role in an instant. They didn’t just change their clothes, however; they changed their characters, their bearing, their affectations. Very nicely done, and invisible to our eyes as they did so. The singing was competent and pleasing, and both the staging and choreography were well done. Lighting was fine—I noticed how carefully the small thrust stage was used with lighting in critical moments helping to isolate a scene within the larger cast. Sound was, to my eyes and ears, used only for offstage or sound effects, but with the small, intimate Taproot stage (Isaac Studio Theatre), sound amplification isn’t needed—this is a play performed in the middle of family, so it feels small and close and embracing. Boy howdy did they have a great budget for costumes—with multiple roles requiring multiple changes, all in what appeared to my eye to be authentic for the period without fussiness. Music was provided by a minimal orchestra of piano and violin, and was just enough for this small theatre, connecting the moments and underscoring the actors singing.
I did want to mention several actors by name here whom I thought did an excellent job in their roles—Tyler Trerise as Decatur Bronson, Robert Gallaher as Lincoln, and Marianna de Fazio as Raz. Standout actors in an ensemble of peers. Bronson is the soldier struggling with the very real anger and hate of a man who has had his dearest companion on earth captured and enslaved, and who seeks not only his wife but stark revenge upon her enslavers; Gallaher plays the moody Lincoln needing to deal with both a national civil war and an incendiary wife; and de Fazio plays a young Confederate who sees only duty to country and family and faith.
And I also wanted to make a separate shout-out to the casting director and theatre for having such a wonderfully diverse cast. This is a play set during the American Civil War, which comprised men and women in America from many backgrounds and positions in society—free, enslaved, abolitionist, slaver. There is an equal balance of stories about African Americans and European Americans, and an equal casting of African Americans and European Americans. By comparison to the production of Holiday Inn at the Fifth Avenue (an all-white cast except for the Macy’s department manager, in contemporary New York City!), this cast represents the honest, clear diversity that was true of the divided America in the 1860s as well as the divided America 150 years later of the 2010s.
A Civil War Christmas
November 22 – December 30, 2017