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Christmas music. The very words can bring on a cringe. Despite the many lovely concerts each year around this time, one can become a little jaded over the decades. But this year, the Carrboro ArtsCenter offers something quite different in the way of a Christmas performance, with Paula Vogel's A Civil War Christmas, which laces together a bundle of stories taking place on Christmas Eve, 1864, with a succession of increasingly powerful songs.
Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage commissioned the play, completed in 2008, and the stories take place in and just north and south of that city. It was unusually cold that winter, and pretty much everyone was exhausted and dispirited, and Washington itself was chaotic with soldiers whole and wounded; plotters and schemers, some of them politicians; and a suddenly swollen population of free, but homeless, black people, many of them children. Vogel's play depends on an intermittent narrative voice to shift among their simultaneous tales as the early dark falls on that bleak Christmas Eve.
The dozen actors in the ArtsCenter's production, directed by Bing Cox, double, triple, even quadruple, which sometimes gets a little confusing, especially in the case of Mark Phialas, who plays Abraham Lincoln, but who also plays a horse, among others. Each actor has a main character, though, and in those roles, all of them shine. And not only are these actors versatile enough to repeatedly switch characters in mid-stream, they all sing. You may feel that the narrative device could have been replaced with more acting; you may wish for more actors. But my grievances on these scores were more than mitigated by Vogel's connection-making and sharp insights, by the musical voices, and by the big-heartedness of the whole production.
The most touching of Vogel's observations here is that Christmas is the time when every child is celebrated like the Christ child; her most astringent is that "the hope of peace is sweeter than peace itself." The play, in a digressive way, is a retelling of the Christmas story, but here the mother and child are Hannah and Jessa (Terra Hodge and Alyssa Coleman), who, escaping from the south over the wide Potomac, find no shelter in the crowded city. Hannah and Jessa follow the star, the clear North Star in "the drinking gourd," but are separated and the child is lost, to be sought by an assortment of wise men and shepherds before being found asleep in the hay.
Many, many other things take place during the play's two-and-a-half hours, and revealing stories are told about the warring peoples and their longing for right and righteousness, for kindness, comfort and joy. Some work better than others, but on the 13th, I found my face wet with tears more than once. A Civil War Christmas is not saccharine, but it is highly sentimental, and sometimes jumps up to a higher plane of emotionality. It repeatedly answers the question asked by one of Alphonse Nicholson's characters, who says, "if there is such a thing as original sin, shouldn't there be original joy as well?" with a resounding yes.
Usually this occurs during the songs. From "Follow the Drinking Gourd," to "Rise Up Shepherd and Follow," "Marching Through Georgia," "O Christmas Tree," "A Yellow Rose in Texas," "A Balm in Gilead," and a hair-raising rendition of "How Shall I Send Thee," and more, the songs are beautifully delivered by individuals, small groups and the full ensemble, with musical direction and piano support by Virginia O'Brien. Lora Deneen Tatum with her big smooth voice was particularly thrilling, and she was wonderful as Elizabeth Keckley. Bonnie Roe's strong voice stood out, and she gave an appealing, exasperating portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln. There was a really lovely quartet with those two, Mary Forester* and little Alyssa Coleman, who had fully as much stage presence as the grown-ups two and three times her size. Gil Faison and the men's ensemble, notably Joey Osuna, were heartbreakingly beautiful on "A Yellow Rose in Texas," as Faison's character – a sergeant and blacksmith in the Colored Infantry--lauds his wife, stolen by retreating Confederate soldiers, and swears to find her and remain forever by her side. Alphonse Nicholson kicked up the soul power in "Go Where I Send Thee," opening the way for Tatum to take the song as if she were Aretha. By the finale by the full cast, one is fully prepared to believe in comfort and joy, if not in the sweet possibility of peace on earth.
This production runs through December 22. For details, see the sidebar.