Fresh Eyes on A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, 6th Installment

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Fresh Eyes on A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: Brennan Randel, Matthew Corwin, and Daniel Pollack-Pelzner

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner was able to see A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS again after being away for a few weeks. The last time he was in to observe was a music rehearsal when the cast was still in the early stages of learning the songs. Now, nearly a month later, the show is up and running. Here are his reflections on the play, the production, and its place in today's tumultuous world:

There have been a lot of lists going around on Facebook of plays to produce after the election: Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day.” I haven’t seen Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas” on any list yet, but I’d happily nominate it as the play every Portlander should see this season. It’ll engage all comers—your uncle who’s a Lincoln buff, your cousin who sings spirituals, your grandma who loves a mother-child reunion, your kids who want to see other talented kids on stage—and it offers an inclusive, capacious vision of American community that feels all too fragile and urgent these days.

At the first read-through back in October, I’d appreciated the wide embrace of the casting and the music: wonderful actors across a spectrum of ages, shapes, colors harmonizing in fresh settings of the American songbook, with jazzy carols jostling against gospel tunes, the Kaddish sung above “Silent Night.” Seeing the show after the election, I was immediately struck by its political empathy. The first scene features General Robert E. Lee (an authoritative Jimmy Garcia) as a civic-minded guy who turns down a cup of coffee because there’s not enough to share with his men. Val Landrum cleverly plays John Wilkes Booth as a stalwart ham, declaiming Antony’s funeral oration from “Julius Caesar” to an admiring crowd, and the irresistible Kai Tomizawa gives a young Rebel soldier courageous pluck and an endearing love for his horse. Humanizing the Confederacy probably isn’t too high on anyone’s to-do list, but it’s a mark of this show’s spirit of unity that Southern soldiers find welcome in an 1864 D.C. Christmas, alongside African-American businessmen, widowers, Quakers, Jews, Native Americans, Irish nurses, manic-depressives (Susannah Mars’s astounding Mary Todd Lincoln), and presidents (Ted Rooney’s appealingly fumbling Abe). How can you feel churlish at a holiday celebration that even makes  room for an animal courtship dance between Vin Shambry’s Northern mule and John San Nicolas’s Southern steed? And if you’re not weeping when Andrea Whittle’s deep-hearted Hannah, an escaped slave, finally finds her lost daughter (the adorable Miya Zolkoske) beneath the shadow of the White House, you need to have your tear ducts checked.

 But this is no sugar plum fairy Christmas. It takes a lot of hard work and good will to reach its final, muted celebration (as it required tremendous artistic labor to realize such a harmonious vision), and we’re well aware that plenty of casualties—from Lincoln’s assassination to infantry deaths—will soon follow in 1865. Indeed, Paul Angelo’s fluid, lucid staging (along with Peter West’s subtle lighting and Kristen Mun’s focused choreography) helped me see how much this play is haunted by loss. The spirits of the dead son of a black dressmaker (an indelible Ayanna Berkshire) and the kidnapped wife of a black sergeant (the powerful Vin Shambry) hover upstage behind rose curtains; Mrs. Lincoln is arrested by a child’s outfit that her own dead son used to wear; and a wounded Jewish soldier’s soul walks away from his body toward an offstage light. Vogel has written several plays that grapple with the loss of her brother to AIDS (“The Baltimore Waltz” and “The Long Christmas Ride Home” among them), and I wondered if Moses Levy’s death scene, as he longed for the healing touch of Walt Whitman, might be another way of figuring her poetic grasp on his elusive life. But even within the play’s fiction, we see characters compensating for loss by forging new communities. The dressmaker promises to let the spirit of her son go if the frostbitten child she finds on the D.C. streets can live, and the sergeant gives up his quest to avenge his wife’s kidnapping when he decides not to shoot a Rebel prisoner but invite him to a chicken dinner instead.

At the talkback after the show, facilitated with expert direction by Michael Mendelson, the audience seemed to be more persuaded by these compensations than the actors did. The mostly white, older, female patrons (more or less the theater enthusiasts you’d expect to find at a Wednesdaymatinee, unless school groups were also present—can we get some in the seats?) spoke eloquently about the characters’ choices to seek understanding instead of vengeance, a moving parable of liberal community. John San Nicolas, by contrast, questioned how much progress we had made since the violent racial conflict of the Civil War, and Val Landrum, who had grown up among Civil War buffs, suggested that the play’s fantasy of healing across political lines was enabled by the sentimental choice to make the Rebel soldier a cute child. It seemed a fair point to ask whether the acts of individual compassion we saw in the play were conditioned by structural or sociological forces: the free black man can forgive the Southern soldier because the former has been promoted to sergeant (“I was free until I joined the Union army,” he says) and the latter, as a child, doesn’t pose a threat. The Quaker enlistee never has to face the sergeant’s choice (whether to shoot the man who stole his wife); he only has to doff his boots for Rebel looters and supply chickens for the Christmas feast across enemy lines. Nicolas closed by charging us to think about what actions we could take ourselves, but the play also raises the question of whether we’re ever truly free to choose.

I thought about this question on the level of casting, too. Seeing Landrum and Shambry pivot in an instant from assassination conspirators to Union comrades (helped by Bobby Brewer-Wallin’s evocative costumes and Mary McDonald-Lewis’s wide-ranging dialect expertise) showed the capacity of the same people to embody different social roles, depending on the situation. Of course, those roles aren’t really the result of their own choices; they’re the consequences of Angelo’s astute double-casting. But even within a production structure that dictates the script, the actors’ flexibility (I’m thinking, too, of Crystal Ann Muñoz, Laila Murphy, Seth Rue, and Blake Stone switching genders, ethnicities, costumes, and accents with deft humor) implies a more perfect union, a capacity for mutual understanding—at least in the space of the Alder Theatre. So, too, with the beautiful vocal arrangements, drilled by Andrew Bray at the music rehearsal I visited: a structure that allowed the songs to feel spontaneous, dramatic, almost fleeting in performance. I wished their lush harmonies had lingered longer, but I guess their evanescence fit with the play’s passing moment of unity. I was glad to have witnessed the hours of rehearsal for the Union victory song, “Jubilee,” that went into making one stage moment shine, and I felt that the whole arc of the rehearsal process—from the tentative visions and provisional assignments of the first read-through to the wonderfully coordinated ensemble production today—mirrored the play’s journey from fragmentation to integration.

What impact will this journey have? Midway through the play, as the Quaker pacifist launches into a lengthy explanation of his support for the Union abolitionist cause, the free black sergeant cuts him off. “You’re preaching to the choir,” Bronson says. Could the same criticism be made of this show? Will it bring in audiences who don’t already subscribe to its sense of community? Can it forge community across racial, religious, class, and party lines today? Tony Kushner has taken issue with the view that theater ought to try to convert the unbelieving. The choir needs preaching to, he says: “The great preachers and great religious writings or sermons—the sermons of somebody like Donne, or King, or Martin Luther, or Thomas Aquinas, or the rabbis in the Talmud—are particularly for the faithful, and their purpose is to help the faithful grapple with the absolutely inevitable concomitant to any great faith, which is doubt.” I came away from the matinee with my faith revived by the spirited ensemble and my imagination engaged by the homespun production values, which trusted the audience to complete the illusion—though I would have liked the opportunity to join the choir in more than spirit. (“If the audience sings along on some of the carols, better still,” Vogel writes in her Author’s Note—maybe next time?) “Yes We Can” feels a bit 2008, but if Artists Rep and Staged! could pull off this glorious pageant—15 actors, 20 creatives backstage, 8 composers, many more volunteers—my hope for peace in on earth, goodwill toward all, is still alive.

The scene that shone in my memory after the show staged an attempt to imagine this kind of connection. In a play interlaced with memories, alternating between the presentational style that Vogel adopted from Thornton Wilder, with characters narrating their stories, and more conventional scenes of dialogue, Bronson (the freed blacksmith-turned-sergeant) finally strips back layers of anger and hurt to recount his sweet courtship of Rose, his lost love—a courtship forged through letters. Rose (the incandescent Crystal Ann Muñoz), we learn, taught Bronson to write, and Vin Shambry conveys his frustration and joy at channeling his desire into the quirky lines of the alphabet. (“I love 'I’s,” he exults—a rare moment of selfhood in this decentered play) He writes his marriage proposal, and after Rose corrects his spelling (“Marry has two ‘R’s,” she chides, a line that resounds in his recollection), she writes back her one-word acceptance. But whereas Paul Angelo stages Shambry’s delightful equine courtship with John San Nicholas’s Silver as an intimate waltz, the horses neighing and necking downstage, he keeps Rose far away from Bronson on an elevated platform upstage left, lit in golden memory. When Bronson passes a note to Rose, he flings out an invisible missive toward the audience in front of him, and Rose catches her version of it behind him. Nothing physically connects them, only the willed act of summoning that imaginary letter. It’s a beautiful gesture that recalls a moment toward the start of the play when Bronson swings his blacksmith’s hammer, trying to beat out the memory of losing Rose, and Muñoz taps a clave behind him to supply the sound of the strike. We don’t realize the significance of the gesture in the moment, but we’ve already been enlisted as imaginative collaborators, participants in Bronson’s trauma and in the yearning to bridge the stage gap that would heal him—a gap of sound, a gap of letters. In her afterword to “The Long Christmas Ride Home,” Vogel recalls her dead brother: “Even if he can no longer write letters to me, I can write letters to him, and so I do in every play.” If her plays are letters to the beloved she lost, this resonant production helps us to feel the distance in the sending—and the collective longing that could resolve it. As the play’s strands build and interplay like the musical lines that weave through its songs, we can hear the desire for harmony, for suspension, for resolution, even if we can’t quite see it made flesh.