It’s a bitter Washington, D.C. winter in 1864, and the recently re-elected President Lincoln (Will Clinger) shrugs off assassination threats; he’s more concerned in obtaining the forgotten Christmas gift he bought his wife, Mary, from the cottage. Across town, a manic Mary Todd Lincoln (the pitch-perfect Paula Scrofano) is struggling to find the perfect gift for her tall, melancholy husband, and her long-time seamstress and confidant Elizabeth Keckley (Felicia P. Fields, offering her very best “warm and matronly”) wisely suggests she offers the “gladness of her heart.”
Meanwhile, the weary nation is entering the fourth year of the Civil War, and liberated slaves are struggling to reconcile their newfound freedom in a country still very much torn apart by racism. In a quest set out by her frantic mother to obtain such freedom, a little girl (the immensely enduring Khori Faison) gets lost in the city’s twisted alleyways as she searches for the White House. And, on the battle lines, a vengeful black Union army soldier holds a cocked gun at a young white soldier’s head, struggling to determine if this shot will somehow bring him closer to locating his wife, who was brutally kidnapped by the Confederates.
But it’s Christmas Eve, so the gladness of our collective hearts shines through and the human spirit endures.
“Oh, Tannenbaum, Oh, Tannenbaum …”
Northlight’s production of Paula Vogel’s Christmas carol-infused play is slick, solid and professional. Committed performances and capable direction provide luxurious trimming for this history-lesson-wrapped-in-a-fuzzy-holiday-blanket. While the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vogel has woven a colorful tapestry of historical fact with fictional characters and events, you can’t help but feel it’s nothing more than a fancily produced pageant play — something you’d see at a middle school, but with far better acting and costumes. Maybe it’s the scattered insertion of standard Christmas carols throughout, the choppy scenes, the presentational storytelling, or the clumsy shifting of narrative duties between characters? Or maybe it was the conclusion, where the actors are directed to wish us well and wave goodbye?
Furthermore, this is a show that practically begs for an original score — perhaps complimented by a few carefully chosen standard carols.
While there’s nothing really wrong with the piece as whole — it’s a perfectly lovely holiday play — it all feels hastily assembled.
That said, Northlight’s effort remains a heart-felt tribute to the history of our nation, and a nice alternative to that cranky Ebenezer and those pesky sugar plum fairies.
“A Civil War Christmas” plays through Dec. 19 at the North Shore Center for the Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. More info here >