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Arts & Culture

'A Civil War Christmas' Offers Alternative To Traditional Holiday Theater

Paula Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas" presents a theatrical concert set on Christmas Eve 1864.
Diversionary Theatre
Paula Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas" presents a theatrical concert set on Christmas Eve 1864.

Theatrical concert by Paula Vogel runs through Jan. 3 at Diversionary

Preview: 'A Civil War Christmas'
If you’ve had your fill of traditional holiday fare such as "The Grinch" and "A Christmas Carol" then Diversionary Theater has something for you. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando suggests "A Civil War Christmas."

LEDE: If you’ve had your fill of traditional holiday fare such as The Grinch and A Christmas Carol then Diversionary Theater has something for you. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando suggests A Civil War Christmas. CIVILWAR 1 (ba) :44 Playwright Paula Vogel wanted to celebrate the core human values of hope, forgiveness, and understanding that embody the holiday season but to do so in a way that did not put a specific religious stamp on it. So she wrote A Civil War Christmas, a play with music set on Christmas Eve 1864. Director Kim Strassburger says it’s a tonic to current divisive issues. KIM STRASSBURGER: I think A Civil War Christmas is a small but important message of hope in this time but it also says though that the war is still being fought as it were, that things were not wrapped up nicely in 1865, that these issues of equality are still present and we still have to fight for them. A Civil War Christmas runs through Jan. 3 at Diversionary Theater. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

If you’ve had your fill of traditional holiday fare such as "The Grinch," "The Nutcracker" and "A Christmas Carol" then Diversionary Theatre has something for you — Paula Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas."

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel wanted to celebrated the spirit of the season but to do so in an inclusive manner. So she wrote "A Civil War Christmas," a play with music set on Christmas Eve 1864.

If you attend a performance, don't expect a conventional theatrical experience at the intimate Diversionary Theatre.

"The actors are on book, that is implied technically by the concert staging," Director Kim Strassburger said. "The idea of theatrical concerts is something that has been done a lot in the 15 years. So it's semi-staged. When the audience comes to Diversionary and walks in they are walking into an environment that is set and lit at the Civil War period. Some of the actors happen to be on book but they are in costume and what I love about concert staging is that the audience uses their imagination to fill in the gaps much like listening to a radio story, the mind will take you to places that you could never go if we were using additional fully staged sets."

The play is set in Washington, D.C., where Vogel is from, and along the banks of the Potomac River. The country is divided and we are presented with the president who contemplates what to do, his wife visiting soldiers, an escaped slave seeking freedom, and a young rebel and his sworn enemy coming face to face.

Strassburger added that Vogel "uses the backdrop of the Civil War to tell many stories."

It involves many diverse American voices. Certainly African American, Northerners and Southerners, but there’s also people of the Jewish faith and Quakers, a whole wide variety of people who made up the American experience during the Civil War. She was fascinated by the idea of retelling a holiday tale but making it much more inclusive of the many voices in America and making it a more diverse story.

In a sense it both conforms to one's expectations of a holiday season play and defies them.

"Because it celebrates core human values of forgiveness and understanding, all of those things that I think the holiday season is meant to embody but it does it without putting a specific religious stamp on it," Strassburger said. "And so in celebrating hope and redemption and coming together against this backdrop of the Civil War I think she’s meeting expectations for the holidays but the fact that it it’s certainly not 'A Christmas Carol,' and that it also appeals to people of a wide variety of backgrounds — even atheists — I think also kind of defies that traditional background as well and I think that’s the appeal of the piece."

Looking back at a time that was particularly divisive in America resonates for audiences facing a nation that seems politically polarized as presidential campaigns heat up.

But Strassburger sees the play as a tonic to current events.

"One of the messages of the play at the end is, how do we come together as a nation?" she said. "In many ways we still can come together as a nation and heal. Now certainly it is not over. Many people would say that the Civil War is still being fought, that the issue of slavery that was fought for during the Civil War has not completely gone away in terms of Civil Rights and equality we see that today. You can’t turn on the news today without hearing and seeing horrible things going on in the world and I think 'A Civil War Christmas' is a small but important message of hope in this time but it also says though that the war is still being fought as it were, that things were not wrapped up nicely in 1865, that these issues of equality are still present and we still have to fight for them."

"A Civil War Christmas" runs through Jan. 3 at Diversionary Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online for remaining shows.