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By RAVEN SNOOK
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel famously said, "I only write about things that directly impact my life." But watching her latest play A Civil War Christmas---a historical pageant of many people and plotlines set on Christmas Eve 1864---it's hard to see her direct connection to the piece.
Then she excitedly rattles off all her ties to the show. Her late brother Carl inspired her love of Victorian melodrama, which strongly influences the script. A Washington D.C. native, she has relatives both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and she often visited Civil War battlefields in her youth. She also grew up singing many of the traditional carols, spirituals, and other period tunes that are integrated into the action.
But her most personal reason for writing A Civil War Christmas? "I did it for the kids in my family," she says. "I wanted it to be our American Christmas Carol."
Like Dickens' classic tale of human suffering and spiritual redemption, A Civil War Christmas is rich, relatable, and packs a wallop. Although the play weaves together historical figures (President Lincoln and his wife, poet Walt Whitman) and fictional characters (runaway slaves, Union and Confederate soldiers), its story and politics are quite timely. It celebrates the multiculturalism of a divided nation under a controversial president, and it explores themes of immigration and the government's responsibility to its citizens.
"You can hear Katrina in it," Vogel says. Though she had the idea for the play in 1997, she began writing in earnest in 2005, when the devastating hurricane sparked heated discussions about race, class, and federal accountability. "As writers, we can embrace the historical and yet also comment on the here and now. It's a way of getting enough distance so that we can look at something that is hurting us. "
While Vogel routinely tackles difficult topics in her plays---incest, AIDS, and prostitution, to name just a few---A Civil War Christmas may be her toughest work yet, not in terms of subject matter but in scope. When it originally premiered at New Haven, Connecticut's Long Wharf Theatre in 2008, it had a cast of 14 channeling more than 40 characters. The script has been streamlined for the current production at New York Theatre Workshop, though it still boasts 11 performers, all playing multiple roles with little regard to gender, race, or age. As such, the first act requires rapt attention in order to follow all the threads, but the emotional payoff comes in Act II, during the desperate search for a lost child.
Like the cast, the script is also many things at once: a crash course in history, a music- and emotion-filled drama, and a heartwarming tale of a community coming together for a common cause. (It's also striking, given Vogel's impulse to write the show for her family, that a young girl is ultimately the unifying force of the script.)
That multiplicity underscores another reason that Vogel sees her own life in the show. "Like so many American families, mine is very diverse," she says. "We're multiracial and multireligious. My brother told me that he wanted the kids in our family to know the streets that we've walked. [A Civil War Christmas] is my gift to them."
Raven Snook regularly writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.