EDITOR’S UPDATE: Listen to TWO Pulitzer Prize winners — playwright Paula Vogel and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin — discuss A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS at the Hungtington. Vogel read Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust’s “Republic of Suffering” to become, dramatically speaking, a “re-enactor” of the Civil War.
Only Paula Vogel, one of the country’s most provocative playwrights, could compose a holiday story that is as much about a Christmas tree stolen from the White House as it is about slavery, death, war and national strife — and still have it be illuminating and joyous. That’s the range of “A Civil War Christmas,” running through Sunday, Dec. 13 at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. The show is set on Dec. 24, 1864, just after William Tecumseh Sherman presented Abraham Lincoln with a sparkling gift of the city of Savannah, which he left untorched during his march through Georgia. But the country was hardly untouched by the fire of pain in those days, which is where Vogel focuses her attention.
“Civil War” is a story of a young country trudging its way through turmoil and the infection of greed. But it is also about community — the blacks, whites, Indians, Quakers, Christians, Jews, poets, soldiers, men, women and children whose lives were sacrificed and elevated by the imperative of freedom. Vogel writes perceptively about each of these groups — and then takes the extra vital step of making sure that the cast is as mutlicultural as the story.
Structurally, the show is episodic: a slave mother crossing the Potomac to freedom in DC, a president struggling to find his way through the post-war trauma, a free black man grappling with revenge and redemption about the loss of his beloved wife, a dying Jewish soldier longing for the comforting prayers of his people, and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (played by A.R.T. veteran Karen MacDonald) mourning the death of her son — as does her confidante Elizabeth Keckley, a prominent Washington seamstress whose son George was killed at war. It’s not a big stretch to say that Vogel’s play is the poetic companion piece to President Drew Gilpin Faust’s “Republic of Suffering.”
While the complexities of conflict penetrate this show’s center, it is also fundamentally about the power of love and community — and there are far more subtle stories bubbling below the surface. There’s humor, too — indeed, the holiday tree is nicked from the White House — as well as an all-star lineup of cameos: Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, John Wilkes Booth, Henry Wadswoth Longfellow, Ulysses S. Grant. Vogel shapes the facts to suit the story. But she captures an imaginative time, place and musical score that is our history and our identity.