A Civil War Christmas Review - A Music-filled Holiday Pageant

Northlight Theatre’s A Civil War Christmas: An American Civil War Christmas is a pageant with a broad scope, a talented cast, carols and other music of the period, and many interesting historical characters, some of them famous.

Full cast

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel ( How I Learned to Drive), the production is a patchwork quilt of scenes featuring several plot lines and 12 actors playing 80 characters, some of whom have only a line or two of dialogue.

It’s Christmas eve, 1864, and a very nervous, distracted Mary Todd Lincoln (the popular Paula Scrofano) is searching for a Christmas tree for the White House. She is calmed and comforted by her husband, played by Will Clinger, who brings a down-to-earth humanity and humor to the iconic figure of Abraham Lincoln, creating a real person and not just a tall guy in a tall hat.

Union soldiers(L-R)Kevin Douglas, Samuel Roberson, James Earl Jones II

Kevin Douglas and Samuel Roberson very appealingly play the enterprising and resourceful Wormley brothers, part of a family of successful African American entrepreneurs. Roberson also is the wounded Moses Levy, a Jewish soldier.

Both young Khori Faison, playing a girl who has been separated from her mother, and Mildred Marie Langford as the woman desperately searching for her child, bring a sense of vulnerability and strength of character to their portrayals.

Khori Faison as Jessa & Mildred Marie Langford as Hannah

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ( David Girolmo) is writing his poem Christmas Bells, which was used for the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, but without two verses referencing the Civil War. Girolmo also convincingly plays General Ulysses S. Grant with enough weight of character and gravitas that you can imagine Grant as a future president.

Alex Goodrich physicalizes and characterizes a very opinionated horse in a very whinnying—and winning—way. And who thought to also cast him as a character named Hay?

The horse’s traveling companion is a Confederate youth named Raz (short for Erasmus), who’s on a journey to join the war. Bethany Jorgensen does a nice job of believably playing—and not overplaying—the boy.

The versatile cast plays parts across lines of gender, age, race, and species (Goodrich’s horse!). Some in the audience may find it distracting when the convicted Lincoln conspirator Mary Surratt is played by a man with a mustache, but the casting of the varied roles may be meant to emphasize that all the human family is one.

The conspirators plotting to kidnap President Lincoln include John Wilkes Booth ( Derek Hasenstab, who looks like our idea of Lincoln’s assassin and who is utterly convincing as a dashing and confident Shakespearean actor and a murderous hothead). Hasenstab also plays General Sherman and a very sympathetically drawn Robert E. Lee, who refuses any comfort not available to his soldiers.

While the historical elements of the production are fascinating, the warm heart of the story is not with the famous, but with the uncelebrated ordinary Americans who suffered and endured during the years of the American Civil War.

Felicia P. Fields is the glowing heart of the production, radiating warmth, understanding, and compassion in her role as seamstress for and companion to Mary Todd Lincoln. The role is based on the real-life Elizabeth Keckley, a freed slave who was also a published author who industriously earned enough money to send her son to college.

Felicia Fields as Elizabeth Keckley & Paula Scrofano as Mary Todd Lincoln

Fields also plays a Mrs. Thomas in an especially engaging scene in which her character is given enough time to tell a whole story, which made us realize how much we had been longing to spend more time with one character, and especially Fields.

James Earl Jones II (reportedly a cousin of the Jones you’re wondering about) makes several welcome appearances throughout the evening as Bronson, a bitter, angry blacksmith seeking revenge after his wife was kidnapped by Confederate soldiers.

James Earl Jones II as Bronson and Mildred Marie Langford as Rose

Jones plays his tough character with conviction, in contrast with the flashback moments of tenderness with his wife (Langford, who gives Rose warmth, intelligence, and gentle humor). For us, the touching moments of the evening were scenes with Jones’s Bronson, the only character who changes during the play. The love he’s given and the compassion he gives show the generosity of spirit that can flow when the human heart turns from anger and vengeance to a recognition of our shared humanity.

Playwright Vogel stresses the importance of community to offer hope and help during times of crisis. That’s a message that is welcome at any time, but especially so at this moment in our nation’s history, and especially at the holiday time of many Americans.

BJ Jones says, “This play is a poster child for our new mission statement,” which includes the aspiration “to promote change of perspective and encourage compassion by exploring the depth of our humanity.”

Director Henry Godinez ably faced the challenge of working with a script with no stage directions and no assignment of roles. He has helped to shape the performances of his excellent cast, he keeps the action moving, and he effectively uses the various areas of the stage.

Sound designer Victoria Delorio and lighting designer John Culbert provide changes of time and place on the stationary set through effective use of ambient sound (cannons and wind, for example) and lighting effects.

Music director Chuck Larkin, at the piano tucked on one side of the stage, and the versatile cast provide music on the violin, harmonica, guitar, and banjo in addition to the singing. The variety of period music of various styles adds depth to the production.

Photos: Liz Lauren 

Northlight Theatre
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts
9501 Skokie Blvd
Skokie IL
phone: 847.673.6300

Tickets are $45 – $55. A limited number of “Day of” Discount tickets are available for $20 by telephone or walkup only on the day of the desired performance.

Nov. 21 – Dec. 19, 2010

Curtain times:
Tuesdays 7:30 pm  (Nov. 23, 30 and Dec. 7 only);
Wednesdays  1 pm and 7:30 pm (except Dec. 1);
Thursdays 7:30 pm (except Nov. 25);
Fridays 8 pm;
Saturdays 2:30 pm and 8 pm;
Sundays 2:30 pm and 7 pm (except Dec. 5 and 12)

Salon at 12 pm on Sunday, Dec. 5: Race and Reenactment: The Civil War in American Memory. The Salon is a panel discussion led by local experts for audience members to gain deeper insight into the play, including historical context, playwright background, influences, and much more. No reservations are required.

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