BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Beginning with the saga of the three kings, so many holiday shows are variations on the same tales: “A Christmas Carol,” “The Nutcracker,” “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” … or a child’s Christmas in 1940 Indiana, called “A Christmas Story.” See what I mean?
One of America’s most influential playwrights, Paula Vogel blessedly gives us a new and touching holiday story populated by some familiar figures in her “A Civil War Christmas,” which opened on Tuesday at New York Theatre Workshop.
Usually melancholy in mood, this two-act drama with Victorian-era hymns and songs intertwines numerous plotlines that twist in and around Washington, D.C. on a blustery Christmas Eve in 1864.
Mary Todd Lincoln shops for a Christmas tree. Grant and Lee share hard times with their troops. A little African-American girl loses her mama and searches for the White House. A Southern teenager faces a summary execution. A mule gets hot for a horse. A dying Jewish soldier dreams of Walt Whitman. Abraham Lincoln goes on a solitary midnight ride even as John Wilkes Booth lies in wait for him.
An 11-member company ably portrays multiple roles under the direction of Tina Landau, who firmly stages the drama’s story theater-type presentation in which the actors narrate the piece as well as depict specific individuals. Th ey also play instruments – guitar, fiddle and banjo – and sing.
Their energy always animates the drama, which lags occasionally but ultimately builds to a satisfying conclusion.
Bob Stillman paints a grave yet warm portrait of Lincoln. Alice Ripley illuminates the contrasting facets of Mary Todd’s complex personality. Karen Kandel, K. Todd Freeman, Sean Allan Krill and Amber Iman are among standout performers who vividly bring their several different characters to life.
Designer James Schuette’s set of weathered planks lends the actors wide open spaces to roam, while the flickering shadows of Scott Zielinski’s lighting provides many moods. The quick-change wardrobe designed by Toni-Leslie James casually mixes period fashions with modern dress. These understated visuals are integral to the disarming ease of Landau’s handsome staging, which further is enabled by the musical direction of Daryl Waters, who sensitively presides at the keyboards.
Not a holiday show meant for the little ones, “A Civil War Christmas” presents a thoughtful look at a bitterly divided America trying to observe good will towards men in spite of their troublous times.
“A Civil War Christmas” continues through Dec. 30 at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., New York. Call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.nytw.org.