Watkins directs Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘A Civil War Christmas’

This weekend, Allegheny College Playshop Theatre will be featuring “A Civil War Christmas” in the Gladys Mullenix Black Theatre. The play was written by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel and will be directed by Beth Watkins, professor of communication arts and theatre. The production will be held on Nov. 17, 18 and 19 at 8 p.m., with a matinee on Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

“The play is like any other holiday celebration of family, but it provides a haunting feeling of those we have lost that can’t celebrate with us,” Watkins said.

It is set on Christmas Eve in 1864 along the icy, war-ravaged Potomac in Washington D.C. The setting features troops from both the Confederate and Union armies that are stationed by the river. The theatrical event will feature a range of storylines that take place throughout the evening.

“The music is taken from various Christmas Carols during this time, as well as war music from the same period,” Watkins said.

Miriam Patterson, professor of communication arts and theatre, works as a costume designer for the college. She said she had her work cut out for her in preparation for the show.

“We have 15 different people playing around 60 different characters,” Patterson said while sewing together a vest for one of the actors.

Patterson explained that the production has 27 quick changes—meaning the actors have to change costumes in thirty seconds or less—and a total of 177 cumulative wardrobe changes.

“In Galileo [which was performed last year] there were forty costume changes. This is three times the average amount,” Patterson said.

One of the main focuses of the musical will be the stories of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, who are played by Professor of Communication Arts and Theater Dan Crozier and Christine McGrath, ’17. Watkins mentioned that there will be a sense of discovery and moments of goodwill in the play, such as when Abraham leaves to find his wife a present and Mary tends to wounded soldiers in the hospital.

Other characters include Robert E. Lee, played by Troy Dinga, ’17, and Ulysses S. Grant, played by Brennen French, ’17. The musical also features Ariana Palmiero, a 10-year-old from Meadville who will be playing the roles of Jessa and Little Joe—two children who are caught up in the politics of the civil war.

Another character in the play is Bronson, a blacksmith, played by Nicholas Lugo, ’17. Bronson has recurring dreams about his wife, who was kidnapped by Confederate soldiers after the army marched through Texas.

Hayley Johnson, ’17, who plays Bronson’s wife, spoke about her experience working with Lugo.

“It was a different dynamic playing the role of a female character that only takes the stage in dream sequences. Usually I am used to playing larger parts where the characters have greater roles,” said Johnson

Johnson also plays Hannah, the mother of Jessa.

The music is taken from various Christmas Carols during this time, as well as war music from the same period.

— Beth Watkins

For the choreography, Betsy Sumerfield, instructor of dance and movement studies, collaborated with Watkins in order to direct actor placement and choreograph each number.

“Most of the music is choral, and the actors will be singing in unison,” said Watkins.

The New York Times has compared “A Civil War Christmas” to a heavier version of “A Christmas Carol” because of the volume of ghosts that appear in the production. The Times also referred to the production as a “song-trimmed drama” and praised Vogel on her work.

The audience will be taken on a trip in which they follow the characters searching for their loved ones during the holiday season.

The play will feature a handful of narratives that tie together within the theme of the play.

Claire Wilson, ’19, the dramaturg for the Playshop theatre, wrote in the play’s foreward that “the United States is well aware of the issue of racism that plagues our country today, however we fail to acknowledge the persistent racism that occurred even in free states at that time.”

Ultimately, the production will highlight the two diametrically opposed points of view that caused the Northern and Southern states of the U.S. to engage in what would become the bloodiest war in American history, according to Wilson. She also said that the production casts an ironic light on Christmas, the season of love and forgiveness.

The cost of admission is $10 for adults and $8 for non-Allegheny students. For Allegheny students, admission is free with a valid student ID. To make a reservation, contact the Playshop box office at 814-332-3414 or make a reservation on the Playshop website. Playshop asks that any interested patron make a reservation by Friday at 2 P.M.