It's Christmas Eve, 1864, on the banks of the Potomac River, just outside Washington D.C. We know this because in the TheatreWorks production of Paula Vogel's A Civil War Christmas, now through December 27 at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto, the actors and singers stand before us, look us in the eye, and tell us so in words, song, and a pair of pantomime horses. Balancing all the relentless exposition is a handful of intertwined stories, each of which culminates in redemption, deliverance, or forgiveness of some sort.
This is curiously sentimental stuff for Vogel, whose work is usually more at home with characters whose struggles shall not always be overcome. Here, her characters sing "Silent Night" without a hint of cynicism, belt out "Follow the Drinking Gourd" as they make their way north to freedom, and transform "The Yellow Rose of Texas" from a very red state's unofficial marching song to a tender ballad of lost love. Even more curiously, it all pretty much works.
Part of the secret, I think, is that Vogel has a sure touch when it comes to the mechanics of her story. For example, she knows just how much peril to put a young Confederate volunteer named Raz (Jayne Delly) in, so much so that at one point we sincerely wonder if things are about to get rather dark. Similarly, we know that Vogel cannot let little lost Jessa (Myha'la Herrold and Tiana Travis alternate in the role) actually freeze to death on the streets of the nation's capital, but she pushes things just far enough to give the inevitable mother-and-child reunion a satisfying, emotional punch.
Pacing is another of this show's many strengths. The sets are always in motion, which means the 14 actors -- playing some 90 roles -- are almost always on the move, too. The result is that no actor, even the leads, hogs the spotlight for long. As soon as John Wilkes Booth (Kit Wilder) has revealed his plan to ambush the president, he exits to become someone else while we are spirited away on, say, a shopping trip with Abraham Lincoln's famously neurotic wife, Mary (Diana Torres Koss), and her African-American confidante, Elizabeth Keckley (C. Kelly Wright).
Despite an economy of dialog, along with the inevitable stereotyping of Keckley as the simple but wise friend of color, the relationship between the two women feels surprisingly real, as does the one between an idealistic, Quaker private (Jonathan Shue) and his embittered and vengeful African-American sergeant-turned-blacksmith, Decatur Bronson (Michael A. Shepperd).
There are laughs, too, particularly when it comes to those pantomime horses. No doubt Vogel wants us to wince when we first witness young Confederate Raz tying a rope around the neck of Daveed Daniele Diggs, the African-American actor who, among other parts, plays Silver, Raz's trusty steed. But once we get past our liberal squeamishness, Diggs as Silver takes over, eliciting laughs of relief from the audience. Similarly, it is difficult not to chuckle at Robert Parsons as an earnest Abraham Lincoln, who seems to be doing his best John Cleese when he trots out of the White House for a solo Christmas Eve ride.
Then there's the music, which even a holiday Scrooge like me found enriching. I very much enjoyed the mix of traditional Christmas carols -- some with altered lyrics -- spirituals, and original tunes that Vogel and her arranger, Daryl Waters, have brought together for Civil War. And it doesn't hurt that most of the voices are strong and powerful, particularly Shepperd's, whose slow, sad, "Yellow Rose" was one of this hopeful show's beautifully melancholy highlights.
TheatreWorks' production of A Civil War Christmas runs through December 27, 2009 at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto. For tickets and information, visit theatreworks.org.