Review: 'A Civil War Christmas' at Baltimore's Center Stage

Experimental holiday production celebrates this region's rich historic past. Photo: Richard Anderson

WASHINGTON, December 6, 2013 – As a Washingtonian who lives near Ft. Totten and Ft. Lincoln this writer has the opportunity to pass by Civil War reminders nearly every day. So the current production of “A Civil War Christmas” by Baltimore’s Center Stage is a seasonal reminder of the rich heritage that that this area and this season can bring.

The holiday classic by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel weaves together a patchwork of personal stories from well-known historic figures. These range from President Lincoln and his manic wife Mary Todd Lincoln, portrayed with effective gravitas by the beardless Jeffry Denman and the emotionally pitch-perfect Kati Brazda, to a series of fictitious characters played equally as well by the ensemble cast.

Playwright Vogel was inspired to write this American adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” due to her local roots in the Maryland suburbs of Washington and the lessons she learned from her frequent area battlefield trips during her collaboration with Molly Smith, Artistic Director of the Arena Stage.

Cast of the Center Stage production of Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas.” (Credit: Richard Anderson)

Her other inspiration was the opportunity to collaborate with the current production’s director Rebecca Taichman.”When the opportunity came up to work together here in Maryland at Center Stage, I thought it would be wonderful,” said Vogel.

Described by Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah as a holiday experiment, he sees this production—the theater’s first holiday performance under his leadership—as a celebration of the region’s unique political and cultural history.

“A Civil War Christmas is one of those very rare plays that is simply perfect for the here and now.  It’s a celebration of place – of Maryland, Washington, and Virginia – and as we honor the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of that conflict in our own backyard” he says.

Boasting a stellar cast of a dozen proven actors and singers, the excellent musical direction of Victor Simonson and his subtle on-stage presence and the unvarnished backdrop of a barebones set in the Pearlstone Theatre, combined to make the production’s cavernous set equal to the sweeping historic content of the play.

Oberon K. A. Adjepong delivers a particularly strong performance in dual roles as Freedman James Wormley mourning the loss of his wife, and Decatur Bronson. Tracey Conyer Lee is also notable as White House seamstress and historical figure Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley who became a confidant of the President’s wife while finding the time to build a thriving business as a free woman of color in Washington, DC.

However, child actress Sierra Sila Weems, a third-grader from nearby Lutherville Lab Elementary, almost steals the show as the lost runaway Jessa. She is spirited into Washington by her mother in a desperate attempt for freedom in the post-Emancipation Proclamation period when slave-catchers were banned.


SEE RELATED: REVIEW: ‘dance of the holy ghosts’ at Center Stage


With an ensemble cast that offers a sprinkling of humor, high spirits and a strong chorus of voices, “A Civil War Christmas” delivers a surprisingly effective evening of entertainment without actually feeling like a musical.

In spite of that beardless Abraham Lincoln I kept looking for from the promotional posters, I give “A Civil War Christmas” a solid three stars out of four. It’s an excellent way to connect with the traditional holiday season and with our historical past as well, given that both Black Friday and Cyber Monday have already combined to kick the commercial holidays into high gear.

This wonderful evening of theater is a family friendly performance delivers more than a teachable moment or two.

(The following brief video from the Center Stage website offers an overview of the play.)

 

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

Performances through December 22 at Baltimore’s Center Stage Perlstone Theater, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21202.

Tickets range from $19-69 depending on performance and available seating.

For tickets and info, visit the Center Stage website or call 410-332-0033

 


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Malcolm Lewis Barnes

As a credentialed professional photo journalist, Mr. Barnes writes for the SQUARE BUSINESS journal, served as the Business Editor and columnist for the Washington Informer, and the Community Development writer for The Common Denominator newspaper

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