Lincoln Yule log

The Huntington celebrates A Civil War Christmas
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  November 24, 2009

0911_civwar_main
PAINT-BY-NUMBERS THEATER But Karen MacDonald (right) is a lively, anxious Mrs. Lincoln, and Jacqui Parker (left) can sing and act.

Abraham Lincoln, as he said in his second inaugural address, yearned to "bind up the nation's wounds." Since the great man was assassinated little more than a month later, he didn't quite get around to it. No worry, Paula Vogel has taken over the job with A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration, which debuted last season at Long Wharf Theatre and is now receiving a second production by the Huntington Theatre Company (at the BU Theatre through December 13). Perceiving that 150 years had been insufficient to cauterize sores left festering since the schism between North and South, and cognizant of how similarly polarized the nation is today, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Baltimore Waltz and How I Learned To Drive headed into the library to mix, match, and set to period music snippets of history involving persons of every hue and religion, icons and unknowns, Unionists and Confederates, all swirling around the vortex of Christmas Eve 1864, when the Lincolns were passing their last Yule in the White House, the Civil War was winding down, and the plot against the president was cranking up. The resultant melody-enriched pageant — meant to promote community and to wish us all "gladness of heart" and impending peace — may represent a noble aim (not to mention a seasonal alternative to A Christmas Carol). But it makes for paint-by-numbers theater.

Awash in Vogel's catholic compassion but lacking her transformative powers, A Civil War Christmas has Ragtime-worthy aspirations in that it folds actual historical figures into its interwoven stories of lesser-known victims, heroes, and disenfranchised folk. If the 47-character tapestry has a center, it is the tale of embittered African-American Union Army sergeant Decatur Bronson, who joined up when his beloved wife was stolen right off their porch by marauding Texans. Made a war hero by his vengeful vow to kill every Confederate he can set his rifle sights on, Bronson is finally brought to a single, redemptive act of mercy. Whereas this man's journey, however intermittently related, has legs, the doings of the famed are rather trivial, Lincoln's main act being to compromise his safety by sneaking off to retrieve his wife's Christmas present while Mrs. Lincoln (a lively, anxious Karen MacDonald) indulges her mood swings by alternately visiting the sick and trying to score a Christmas tree. As for John Wilkes Booth and his compatriots, they're the gang who couldn't kidnap straight.

This is also one of those works in which the actors, when not jumping into roles as diverse as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composing "Christmas Bells" and a personable nag named Silver, narrate the intricately cross-cut story that one of them compares to the Potomac, with its "many twists and turns." The cumbersome device merely adds to the once-removed character of the piece, which flits not only from plot to plot but all around Dan Ostling's rough-hewn set, with its elevated wooden platform, bare-branched trees, and snow that falls on half the stage as a festively adorned Christmas tree has a growth spurt right out of The Nutcracker.

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