Ragged opening concludes Civil War triptych: A Civil War Christmas at ArtsCenter Stage

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A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS
Justin Smith, Gil Faison, Lora Deneen Tatum, Alphonse Nicholson and Bonnie Roe, in A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS - ADAM GRAETZ
  • Adam Graetz
  • Justin Smith, Gil Faison, Lora Deneen Tatum, Alphonse Nicholson and Bonnie Roe, in A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS

★★ 1/2
ArtsCenter Stage
through Dec. 22

Was just a shaky opening night? Or were deeper difficulties present in ArtsCenter Stage’s A Civil War Christmas when it bowed last Friday, Nov. 13?

The show concludes a laudable 8-month triptych of productions observing the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. (How laudable, you ask? See its entry in our annual theater awards, "The List for 2013,” under Special Achievement in the Humanities, which INDY Week’s critics awarded in advance of last week’s opening.) Still, particularly given the achievements of their November staging of The Whipping Man (also honored in “The List,” as one of the top regional shows of the year), this production closed the series with a distinctly weaker opening last Friday night.

To be clear, a number of the difficulties here spring directly from Vogel’s script. Given the show’s track record, that’s not entirely a surprise. Washington’s Arena Stage shelved the music theater work for eight years after it commissioned Vogel to write it in 1998, the year she won the Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive. Then Arena slated the work for its 2006 season, but subsequently cancelled the show six months in advance of its scheduled opening. Award-winning director Tina Landau (which local audiences saw in a Duke preview of Dream True: My Life with Vernon Dexter) gave the work its world premiere at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theater at the end of 2008, and a favorable review in the New York Times gave the show a life beyond its first production. But the tricky currents—and, at times, reductive characterizations—that Landau successfully managed to navigate remained a challenge for these local artists on opening night.

Vogel attempts a panoramic view of the capital city and its environs as it was on Christmas Eve in 1864, during the last year of the Civil War. As she threads among a series of tales involving the high-born and low, Vogel repeatedly cuts across social, economic and political divides in her depiction of a divided country. The nation’s capital rested adjacent to that fault line at the time, facing Virginia, then the northernmost of the Confederate states, just across the Potomac River.

As Vogel’s script unfolds, Raz, an errant Virginia farmboy (Mary Forester), tries to join up with Mosby’s Raiders just a short distance beyond, while a freed African-American woman and her daughter (a poignant Terra Hodge and Alyssa Coleman) are stopped at the border, just outside the city, without a pass to cross over.

While Mary Lincoln Todd (Bonnie Roe) shops and gossips with her confidante, African-American seamstress and businesswoman Elizabeth Keckley (Lora Deneen Tatum), an embittered African-American sergeant (Gil Faison) immerses himself in blacksmith work so as not to think of his missing wife. A White House bodyguard (John Paul Middlesworth) frets about a last-minute Christmas detail President Lincoln (Mark Phialas) is determined to embark on, as a gang of insurrectionists lead by John Wilkes Booth (Gus Allen) plans mischief against the head of state.

Bonnie Roe, Mary Forrester, Alyssa Coleman and Lora Deneen Tatum, in A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS - ADAM GRAETZ
  • Adam Graetz
  • Bonnie Roe, Mary Forrester, Alyssa Coleman and Lora Deneen Tatum, in A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS
That’s an awful lot of ground to cover, and there are still subplots we haven't touched on. With only a cast of 12, as called for in the original script, the doubling and tripling of roles here repeatedly gives the impression that too few people are trying to cover too many bases on stage.

To his considerable credit, long-time director Bing Cox keeps the narrative threads in this tapestry unsnarled. We also appreciated his nuanced work with Roe and Alphonse Nicholson and Justin Smith in roles ranging from presidential assistants to abashed shop clerks.

Unfortunately, though, Cox hasn’t attenuated Vogel’s tendency here toward melodrama and emotional manipulation. Raz’s early misadventures are broadly interpreted as a bid for horselaughs (with Phialas awkwardly doubling as the horse), and Allen’s brief and thankless turn as Robert E. Lee renders him an implausibly noble warrior, all but overcome by fellow feeling with his troops. Sgt. Decatur Bronson’s dilemma is hammered home—and then some—before a sequence involving a missing child on a freezing night none too subtly echoes the nativity tale.

Arranger Daryl Waters attempts to splice familiar and obscure secular and holiday songs from the period in his score, but the results are mixed. The triumphant hymn, “Go Where I Send Thee,” made for a moving 11 o’clock song—particularly when Tatum sang it with such conviction. Before that, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” seemed nothing more than a musical non sequitur.

Too often, the ensemble sounded ragged and not entirely in tune under Virginia O’Brien’s musical direction. Without the house sound system, her electronic keyboard sounded tinny, particularly in passages for synthesized strings.

Thus, a work that could have closed a thoughtful season on an exclamation point raised some pointed question marks instead. We regularly see music and theater works done more effectively in the region. Was our experience here a one-night fluke? Or does ArtsCenter Stage lack the ongoing ability and resources to match the standards we see elsewhere?

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