A Civil War Christmas Makes its Chicago Premiere at Northlight Theatre.

civilwarchristmasCast with tree, Felicia fg (horiz).jpg

Photo Credit, Liz Lauren.

A Virtual History Lesson.

There’s a whole lot going on at Northlight Theatre’s A Civil War Christmas

civilwarFields Scrofano tree.jpg

Photo Credit, Liz Lauren.

by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive, 1997).  With over 65 scenes, 20 actors and more than 100 characters, the show is a virtual history lesson of the times–if you are able to follow along.  Vogel uses the backdrop of Christmas Eve 1864, on a very icy and cold day in Washington, D.C.  to showcase this divisive time in America’s history.  The play (2008) presents a series of vignettes bisected by holiday music from that period including O Tannenbaum and Silent Night as well as lesser known marches, spirituals and hymns.

Vogel, who in addition to being a playwright, is a professor and chair of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama, penned the play in hopes putting an American spin on poverty and class in America in answer to Dicken’s  A Christmas Carol.  

civilwarchristmasJones II, Langford - h.jpg

Photo Credit, Liz Lauren.

The ambitious and finely detailed play may be a little too ambitious with its large cast of characters creating a very crowded stage and storyline.  Along the way, you’ll meet Abraham Lincoln (Will Clinger), who has just been re-elected to the presidency, Confederate General Robert E. Lee (Derek Hasenstab), Union General Ulysses S. Grant, John Wilkes Booth (Derek Hasenstab who also plays General Sherman and General Lee), poets Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (David Girolmo plays both),  Mary Todd Lincoln (Paula Scrofano), her friend and seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley (Felicia P. Fields), a former slave, Hannah (Mildred Marie Langford) and her daughter Jessa (Khori Faison), a blacksmith (James Earl Jones II), and a horse, named Trigger,–humorously portrayed by Alex Goodrich who also plays a Quaker when he isn’t a horse and Clara Barton–to name a few.  If that sounds confusing to you, you’re not alone.  

Most of the actors are required to play multiple roles which adds to the confusion.  A very recognizable Lincoln pops up as several other characters by just removing his top hat.  A Quaker is transformed into an improvised horse. An actor with very obvious facial hair is mildly confusing (and amusing) as he appears as a mother.   Although, it is a common practice for actors to play multi-roles in plays, the pacing of this show left little time for costume change leaving the multiplicity a little too obvious and at times, comical–when it was not the intent.

Amid the crowd, there are two standouts.  Tony nominated, (Sofia in The Color Purple on Broadway) Felicia P. Fields as Elizabeth Keckley and James Earl Jones II (Decatur Bronson) shine whenever they are on stage which isn’t often enough.  Their acting and beautiful vocals are the highlights of the show. 

A Different Perspective on the Production from the Huntington Theatre 2009 premiere.
The major storylines of the nearly two-and-a-half hour performance follow a frivolous Mary Todd Lincoln as she searches for a tree for the White House; a trivialized, cartoonish Lincoln trying to retrieve  a gift he’d forgotten for Mary; John Wilkes Booth and crew in pursuit of Lincoln;  a former slave, Hannah searching the streets for her missing young daughter Jessa; and Decatur Bronson, a former slave, as an angry blacksmith seeking revenge for his wife’s disappearance.

There are some very good actors in the Chicago production but something is amiss.   A Civil War Christmas was previously produced in Vogel’s hometown of New Haven, CT., at Boston University Theatre and Palo Alto–receiving mixed reviews in all cases.  One can only hope it will be tweaked along the way and grow to the classic it wants to be.

The Box Office is located at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulevard, in Skokie.  Box Office hours are Monday-Friday 10:00am-5:00pm, and Saturdays 12:00pm-5:00pm. On performance days, the box office hours are extended through showtime. The Box Office is closed on Sundays, except on performance days when it is open two hours prior to showtime. Tickets can also be purchased online at Northlight Theatre.

Curtain times.
Tuesdays at 7:30pm (November 23, 30 and December 7 only); Wednesdays at 1:00pm and 7:30pm (except December 1); Thursdays at 7:30pm (except November 25); Fridays at 8:00pm; Saturdays at 2:30pm (except November 13) and 8:00pm; Sundays at 2:30pm and 7:00pm (except November 21 when the show starts at 6:00pm, and December 5 and 12).  Through December 19, 2010.

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

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