Christmas Eve,1864 is the setting for Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas, onstage at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights through Jan. 3. When stacked up against most of the holiday-oriented fluff in San Diego theaters this month, this talky musical that originally premiered in 2008 is intellectually rigorous. But with the cast of nine on a bare stage, seated much of the time with open books containing the script in their possession, A Civil War Christmas for all its gravitas is in essence a two-hour staged reading, with music.
Now there’s something to be said for that music, with not only the cast members but the sonorous Encore Vocal Ensemble behind the stage and a pianist and fiddler handling live accompaniment. The expected Christmas carols notwithstanding, the songs from the Civil War era that evoke the horrors of the war, the plight of the freed slaves and the desperate mood of the nation divided are rendered with spirit and solemnity. When the music stops to tell the various intertwining stories of this night before Christmas in 1864, the production flags. There are too many characters and subplots, for one thing, and for another some in the cast rely too heavily upon the script they’re holding. Others, it should be said, seem completely at ease. Taylor Henderson, as one of the freed slaves, sings beautifully and brings gentleness to the wartime atmosphere. Cashae Monya succeeds in multiple roles, including that of a child lost in Washington, D.C. Skyler Syllivan has the stature and projects the dignity of President Lincoln.
A Civil War Christmas would benefit from more animation on stage than merely actors sitting down, standing up, then sitting down again. What’s more, revisiting this important time in American history requires a you-are-there sensation that goes beyond the songs of the time and the period clothing. Limited as the Diversionary space is, screen projections could have amped up the drama. Or something as simple as a map of the territory along either side of the Potomac River, a symbolic and very real dividing line, might have more vividly taken us back to a critical time in our history.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat