‘Civil War Christmas’ by 1st Stage

V. Savoy McIlwain and Ayanna Hardy star in 1st Stage's production of "A Civil War Christmas." (Photo by Teresa Castracane)

The U.S. Civil War was not only an epic struggle over slavery and states’ rights that killed more than 600,000 people. It also forced people on both sides to make life-altering choices.

1st Stage’s production of Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration” offers a visual feast and slew of plot lines to keep track of, but is a joyous ride from start to finish.

Director Deidra Lawan Starnes obtains strong performances from the 12-member cast, whose members play at least three roles each. Despite the vast array of intersecting story lines, the action rarely loses momentum.

The play takes place in the Washington area during the Christmas season of 1864, when the Confederacy is nearing its death throes, but plenty more fighting is yet to come.

In the White House, folksy Abraham Lincoln (Russell Rinker)frets about having forgotten to buy his wife a Christmas gift and plots an ill-advised solo trip on horseback to pick up some kid gloves. Rinker’s booming baritone adds plenty to the numbers he’s in.

Mary Todd Lincoln (Rebecca Ballinger) has several pivotal scenes, including one involving a dying Jewish soldier in a hospital, and she comes across as eccentric, but sympathetic. The play does, however, show her manic-depressive swings during a funny tree-decorating bit and her agony over having lost her young son, Willie.

Lincoln is stalked throughout by the man who will kill him several months later, egotistical actor John Wilkes Booth (Joshua Simon). Simon gets the most laughs of any of the performers and also camps it up as a Yosemite Sam-like Col. John Singleton Mosby.

Bronson (V. Savoy McIlwain), a slave who earned his freedom and now is a Union blacksmith, pines for his wife, Rose (Billie Krishawn), who was taken into slavery despite being free.

McIlwain has a deep, pleasant singing and speaking voice and brings to life Bronson’s rage, humor and humanity. He’s especially strong in “Take No Prisoners” and “Yellow Rose of Texas.” The scene between him and a Confederate prisoner (Sophie Schulman) is one of the play’s best.

In a side plot woven throughout the play, an escaped slave (Krishawn) sneaks her daughter (Karma Price) into Washington, D.C., and then has to find her again before the brutal cold does her in.

Each cast member seizes the chance to shine. Ayanna Hardy plays a forceful seamstress, while Price and Ballinger are delightful to watch as they portray a horse and mule. As the long-suffering head of White House security, Suzy Alden is tasked with protecting a president who is not as concerned as he should be about personal safety.

Tiziano D’Affuso makes a strong initial impression as Gen. Robert E. Lee and has a nice turn toward the end as a Quaker soldier who can’t bring himself to kill anyone. Gary Perkins III and Demitrus Carter contribute plenty of comic relief during a running gag as brothers who constantly get into mischief.

The troupe makes full use of the theater space, entering from the hallway door to the side, marching up and down the center aisle, and asking audience members rhetorical questions.

Set designer Jessica Cancino provides multiple levels for the action to occur. There’s  a blacksmithing area in front, a raised platform for the White House scenes, a wide stairway leading to an overhead loft with railing, a stable-like area below and several movable props, including an oversized table on wheels.

Lighting designer John Alexander adds to the atmosphere by filtering yellow lights through a smoky haze. Costume designer Danielle Preston puts most of the performers in white shirts, brown vests and tan pants, but also supplies some dignified topcoats (Lincoln’s among them, of course) and additional finery for the First Lady.

1st Stage’s crew was devastated by the recent death of the play’s musical director, Markus Williams, but last-minute successors Walter “Bobby” McCoy and Leigh Delano carry off the show well.

“Markus was a brilliant musician and leader whose passion for his work was contagious,” said Alex Levy, 1st Stage’s artistic director. “Our entire company mourns this loss.”

“A Civil War Christmas” benefits from strong performances, effective staging and music that penetrates the audience like a blast wave.

“A Civil War Christmas” runs through Dec. 23 at 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road in Tysons. Shows are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $36 for adults, $36 for seniors and $15 for students and military.

For tickets or information, see the Website at www.1ststage.org or call (703) 854-1856. 

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