Connecticut Repertory Theatre's 'A Civil War Christmas' has heart, depth and holiday spirit

They sing. They weep. They cheer. They fight a war. They decorate a tree.

“A Civil War Christmas” lives up to its title and its promise. Now a decade old, Paula Vogel’s warmhearted, multilayered historical epic deserves to be experienced more often. Every Christmas would be nice.

Vogel says she wrote “A Civil War Christmas” because she wanted there to be an American Christmas story to stand up against “A Christmas Carol.” Where Dickens took a single issue — poverty in Victorian times — and solved it with the miraculous overnight transformation of a miser into a philanthropist, Vogel gets more complicated.

“A Civil War Christmas” wraps multiple stories of 19th century Washington, D.C. — freed slaves, a vulnerable child, wounded soldiers, last-minute gift-getting — into a deeply researched historical framework. Besides the many fictional characters, there are Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Wilkes Booth, with cameos from Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and many others torn from textbooks rather than storybooks.

Lincoln is shown as a natural leader and a loving husband, but there’s considerable foreshadowing of his imminent assassination. There’s a lot of darkness in this spirited Christmas celebration; all the tales are tinged with the sexism and racism of the time.

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“A Civil War Christmas” is a snapshot of a thriving diverse community at a time of great change. The Christmas cheer comes when the bustling politicians, military men, charity organizers, philanthropists, shop workers, and others all slow down, take a breath and sing “Joy to the World.”

Songs are a big part of the show, which is subtitled “An American Musical Celebration.” It has a pageant-like feel, with narrators setting up each short scene and actors breaking into song at the drop of a stovepipe hat. The piano accompaniment is by Kenneth Clark. The best musical numbers are ones that create medleys of Christmas carols and Civil War marching songs. There are several refrains of “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a fun tune with cryptic lyrics that purportedly told slaves how to escape via the Underground Railway.

The twin themes of wartime and Christmastime are never far apart. Lincoln, Lee and Grant are referred to as “the three wise men.” There are even ghosts.

Connecticut Repertory Theatre, which is presenting “A Civil War Christmas” on the proscenium stage at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre through Dec. 9, uses a raw-wood platform minus bells and whistles. Director Elizabeth Van Dyke has the actors facing out to the audience while they deliver their speeches about peace, harmony, responsibility and community spirit. It nails Vogel’s pageant format and makes the play’s messages hard to miss.

As with all its large-cast shows, CT Rep inserts a few professional actors into a cast otherwise made up of UConn acting students. The most prominent is Forrest McClendon, who handles a number of key roles — from soldier to shopkeeper — with a friendly air and an upbeat tone that almost single-handedly keeps some of the early scenes from becoming dry history lessons. Recent UConn grad Tabatha Gayle returns to campus to play Rose, an ethereal character based on the real-life woman who inspired the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

The student cast, which works beautifully together as an ensemble, also wears all those fancy dresses and soldier uniforms very well. The strapping Rob Barnes is eerily right for the role of a muscular, brooding Lincoln. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Erin Cessna follows the nuances of Vogel’s script, which allows the first lady to appear “manic” and understandably depressed at times, but doesn’t buy into the myths that she was unstable and severely mentally ill.

Mary Todd Lincoln and her good friend Elizabeth Keckley (the celebrated author of “Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House”) are the main heroines of this crowded play, bringing comic relief and love and good cheer to the proceedings. Keckley is played by Alex Campbell, who’s distinguished herself with leading roles in such other big-cast CT Rep shows as “The Grapes of Wrath” and “As You Like It.”

“A Civil War Christmas” isn’t all boughs of holly. It’s a parade of love stories, death stories, songs, scuffles and funny animals (with the same man who plays General Grant also playing a mule). Quaker and Jewish viewpoints join the Christian ones. Vogel has created a Christmas show for our own complicated times, drawing from history but also from a deep-rooted desire to comfort, enlighten and entertain.

A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS runs through Dec. 9 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Ave. on the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs. Remaining performances are Dec. 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 7 at 8 p.m., Dec. 8 at 2 and 8 p.m. and Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $38. 860-486-2113, crt.uconn.edu

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