Delightful! 'A Civl War Christmas' is cause for celebration at Dobama Theatre


STEVE WAGNER PHOTOGRAPHY

STEVE WAGNER PHOTOGRAPHY

This play will renew your hope for humanity.
Boy, could many of us use the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln -- especially with this season of giving, hope, redemption and reconciliation marred in part by the raw wounds festering in the aftermath of racial tension following shootings of young black men by white police officers.

"With malice toward none...with charity toward all...."

They're words the people of Ferguson, Mo. and other cities where similar acts have occurred need to hear. That's especially the case if it's true, from what I've heard, that Ferguson's residents are destroying their fellow citizens' businesses and property instead of helping one another get through these tough times. Lincoln's alive, well and reassuring, but never placed on a pedestal of sainthood, in Dobama Theatre's moving, refreshing production of the rejuvenating epic play with music "A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration."

It's eloquently written by Pulitzer Prize Winning playwright Paula Vogel, set toward the end of the Civil War in and around Washington D.C. It plays out on a simple, symbolic set designed by Ben Needham. The simplicity of the set allows us to focus on the characters and their plights rather than spectacle. Even those who love a feast for the eyes are satiated, what with puppet masks for horses and projections.

The set includes a circular stage, which could represent the play's theme of unity and community or the life cycle; even as people in the characters' lives die, life marches on.

The sense of hospitality and community is reinforced by Nathan Motta's direction, which has the actors shaking hands, hugging and showing other means of affection.

Richard Ingraham's sound design realistically depicts battle sounds, and Jeremy Dobbins' projections help illustrate Lincoln's dream of himself on a ship, speeding toward some distant shore (Africa?)

Fictional characters mix with historical figures during a tremendously turbulent time in our history, with war still raging, blacks still relegated to the status of property and strife suffusing our nation.

But Vogel poetically and with grace shines a light on the indomitable power of the human spirit; people's ability to forgive, forge on and comfort each other even in such dark times. It's a rare play that puts us in a festive mood for the holiday season, imbues us with patriotic fervor for our country, renews our faith in humanity's capacity for compassion and makes us laugh (Lincoln, at one point, proclaims he'd rather face the Army of Northern Virginia with a pea shooter than face his wife without a Christmas present).

"A Civil War Christmas" is a nice change of pace from the year after year Yultide shows that, as powerful as they can be, scream for a change of pace once in a while. In this case, that change of pace is Vogel's colorful interwoven stories and characters that, without jumbling the story, get at the heart of her play: The strength of these characters' resolve in perilous, uncertain times. Perhaps most importantly, Vogel avoids the trap of presenting us with a history lecture. Rather, she tells a very human story with flesh and blood people, not museum figures. Vogel finds the right balance between narration and action.

And Dobama's production, led by Motta's sensitive direction, never lets the story feel like we're at a museum. In the play, the year is the coldest in memory in that area. All are in search of something: An escaped slave searches for her young daughter, a Union officer seeks his wife whom confederates kidnapped, a former slave seeks to continue living, despite constant visits from the ghost of her son, who was killed in the war and a Quaker (a passionate Andrew Gombas) seeks pacifism, President Lincoln seeks to lead his country with the war still raging -- and to escape the suffocation of protection while his emotionally-troubled wife seeks to be useful amid it all.

Songs, ranging from the peaceful to the rousing and hopeful, capture the play's various moods. The bitter cold can serve as a metaphor for the bleak reality of the existence with which the characters must deal. The freezing weather's counterpoints are the characters and some of the songs, especially "Yellow Rose of Texas," sung by Decatur Bronson, a sergeant in the Union's colored infantry. Nathan A. Lilly sings it with an infectious dreaminess and joy, during a heart-melting scene during which he imaginatively dances with his wife. 

The talented cast members present multi-faceted performances and wrap their expressive voices around songs such as "O Tannenbaum," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "O Christmas Tree" and "What Child is This." They also blend their voices beautifully, reinforcing again the theme of community.

Lilly deftly conveys a commanding aura but also a softer side, including touching vulnerability, such as when his worried, wary eyes dart from side to side as he wonders about the whereabouts of Bronson's wife.

Nicole Sumlin's Elizabeth Keckley, who bought her freedom by stitching with a needle, makes us feel her torment and effort to rid her mind of the ghost of her son. Sumlin also imbues Keckley with the kindness one might associate with a caring nurse as Mrs. Lincoln's friend.

The first lady, dressed like the rest of the female characters in period, long dresses, is appropriately clothed in mourning garb, as she's still heartbroken over the death of her son. Watching and hearing Juliette Regnier play the role, you feel as though she lost her own son as she authentically chokes up. The actress admirably captures all of the First Lady's moods and personalities. There's her sing-songy voice that carries a hard to contain enthusiasm when she's shopping. There's also an instability and genuine sadness mixed with exasperation and panic when she believes she's failed her husband or feels left out of his affairs.

Matthew Wright gives us a President Lincoln with an air of importance and thoughtfulness, but far from arrogance and saintliness. Wright's as skillful imbuing Lincoln with unbridled joy as he is in portraying mild annoyance when his bodyguards insist on closely watching him as conspirators seem to be hatching a plan.

They, of course, include Lincoln assassinator John Wilkes Booth (a shady, conniving, cunning Matt O'Shea). Whenever he and the other conspirators gather, Marcus Dana's lighting takes on a dark foreboding quality. The lighting appropriately brightens during more upbeat, happy times.

Also on the Confederate side is Raz, a pre-teen/early teenage boy determined to join their cause. I question the need for a female to play him, as the right boy would seem more than capable of handling the role, which requires charisma and determination. Natalie Green conveys those qualities, but is unconvincing as a boy.

The star of this show is Katrice Headd as Hannah, the runaway slave escaping with her daughter to freedom's soil. After letting her young daughter Jessa (an adorable yet articulate Caris Collins) run ahead of her to Washington, Hannah spends the rest of the play frantically searching for her baby. Among the interwoven stories, this is among the most touching. Collins' panic-stricken, pleading Hannah is a character who comes vividly alive; you want to run onstage and warm her with blanket, just as you do Collins' Jessa -- a Dickensian character who might remind one of "A Christmas Carol's" Tiny Tim.

In one scene, a Jewish wounded soldier, Moses Levy (a convincingly hurting, incoherent Andrew Gombas) is tended to. "Silent Night" and a Jewish prayer for the dead combine awkwardly in one of the play's weaker moments.

The play might not be perfect and neither are the characters as individuals. But their heartfelt determination to help one another and overcome their hardships should serve as inspiration to many -- regardless of the time of year.


IF YOU GO

WHAT: "A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration."

WHEN: Through Jan. 4. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays.

WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights

HOW MUCH:  $20 per ticket for Thursday-Sunday performances and $25 per ticket for Friday and Saturday performances.

Call the box office at 216-932-3396.