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Shows Worth Seeing:

A Civil War Christmas
By Paula Vogel
New York Theatre Workshop
74 E. 4th St.
Box office: (212) 279-4200

The Christmas show is a genre with modest intellectual expectations. Frigid and shopping-hassled audiences are mostly content with time-tried formulas involving bare legs, cute children, and bromides about universal love and good will, and even serious artists are often content to deliver just that. Not so Paula Vogel. Her new musical play A Civil War Christmas, spiffily directed by Tina Landau, is a gloriously messy mishmash of entwined stories that deliberately foreground not just inspiring acts of compassion and courage but also some of America’s slowest healing wounds and most intractable problems.

A headstrong Abe Lincoln (Bob Stillman) stubbornly places himself in personal danger fetching a forgotten present for his wife. Mary Todd (Alice Ripley), for her part, disturbs army hospital routine with her visits to soldiers at all hours and, in order to please Abe, high-handedly appropriates a Christmas tree purchased by someone else. An escaped slave woman (Amber Iman) nearly causes her daughter’s death by exposure after sending the little girl across the Potomac hidden in a cart, thinking to save her from slave-catchers. A black union sergeant (K. Todd Freeman) who has sworn to “take no prisoners” after seeing his comrades massacred by confederates faces a crisis of conscience after capturing a 13-year-old southern spy. All this and much, much more is packed into Vogel’s play, blended with sweet and poignant old carols and period songs, and presented with a bustling knockabout story-theater technique (lots of role and costume changes) that gives the exquisite ensemble a chance to take real ownership of the production. Their strong and fluid voices and characters fill the hall with light, conviction, joy, and intelligence. No other Christmas play I know of more gently and persuasively connects the internecine slaughter of Lincoln’s age with the presumably less dire political and social impasses of today. The company sings passionately of peace on earth in the end but it does so with smart, open eyes and a spirit that refuses to blind itself to complexity.



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