Settle in for a long winter's nap at A Civil War Christmas at Theatre Three. It's a mournful 150-minute drama with music, all public domain stuff ("Silent Night," "There Is a Balm in Gilead," and even "The Yellow Rose of Texas").
Author Paula Vogel won a Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive. With this play she seems to be aiming at an end-of-year burst of royalty payments from theaters avoiding shows about Tiny Tim and red-nosed reindeer. A Civil War Christmas comes off as a hacky patchwork of Wikipedia entries about Civil War figures, with stories told in awkwardly paced, alternating vignettes interrupted by enervating singing.
The cast at Theatre Three, directed by Bruce Richard Coleman, speaks lines with a war-weary air of utter exhaustion. When they sing, they drop the volume of their unmiked voices and don't bother to stay in unison. They stumble over dialogue and miss cues. Imagine a Ken Burns documentary -- sons writing letters home from the battlefield, Mary Todd Lincoln collapsing in a manic episode in a dress shop -- performed by a small-town church choir tired of carols and each other.
Set in and around Washington, D.C., on Christmas Eve 1864, A Civil War Christmas finds President Lincoln (Stan Graner, who gives the 16th president a lilting Irish brogue) preparing for his second term. Walt Whitman (Willy Welch, who also plays Ulysses S. Grant and other roles) writes a poem. Seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (Stormi Demerson) stitches a shawl. This show is shawl-heavy.
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A young girl named Jessa (Qynetta Caston) wanders icy streets looking for the White House, sent there by her mother, a former slave still afraid of being returned to the plantation by a "slave catcher." Mrs. Lincoln (Brandi Andrade) sees ghosts. Everybody stops dead in their tracks to sing "O Tannenbaum" in German and "Follow the Drinking Gourd," a vintage tune about the Big Dipper, which guided runaway slaves north to freedom. They repeat the line "an odd feeling of dread," which in your mind you'll complete with "that this show will never end."
Lincoln's horse is played by a crudely constructed plywood cutout on wheels, not exactly the magical equine puppetry employed in War Horse. But it does give the least wooden performance.
A Civil War Christmas continues through December 14 at Theatre Three, 2800 Routh St. (in the Quadrangle). Tickets, $10-$50, call 214-871-3300.