Theater preview: Paula Vogel shoots for something epic with new play
Ask Paula Vogel how her life changed after winning the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and you don’t get the answer you expected.
“It has complicated my life,” she said. “I get about 200 e-mails a day asking for advice. I feel like I’m the Johnny Appleseed of new plays. I’m already working 18 hours a day. And I’m getting old.”
And then there’s a pause before she delivers the most poignant observation of them all: “I’ve only written two plays since I won the Pulitzer.”
That’s Vogel’s loss, and it’s our loss, too. Paula Vogel is exactly the kind of playwright we need these days – daring and edgy. Her plays are as unnerving as they are insightful. You sit in the audience and squirm, thinking, “Yes, I know exactly what she’s talking about. Unfortunately.”
She won the Pulitzer for “How I Learned to Drive,” an astonishing little one-act about a young girl’s complicated relationship with the uncle who taught her how to drive ... and also molested her. The play is uncomfortable, yes, but also riveting. That brings us to one of the two plays she’s written since “Drive:” “A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration,” playing Friday through Dec. 13 at the Huntington Theatre in Boston.
Set on Christmas Eve 1864, the play interweaves multiple storylines, including the Lincolns, a fugitive slave and a rebel soldier. “Civil War Christmas” has big ambitions – a portrait of the nation as it transforms and defines itself.
It’s a departure for Vogel. It’s a big sweeping epic that draws inspiration from writers such as Charles Dickens and E.L. Doctorow – authors with a knack for creating a world-full of people.
“I love the way they populate their novels,” she says. “This play aims for that kind of broad tapestry.”
She loves the swirling nature of lives intersecting in ways that are sometimes small and sometimes profound.
“When Abe Lincoln is at a party,” said Vogel, her imagination clicking into gear as she asks the kind of question that clearly inspired the play, “where’s John Wilkes Booth?” She’s filled her play with 90 characters – even if they’re all played by a mere 10 actors.
But in a way, “Civil War Christmas” is also classic Vogel: daring. How many playwrights have the spine to try and re-create Lincoln on stage? It sounds like an exercise that’s doomed from the start. How could he come across as anything other than stiff, inaccessible or trite? Or all three? But Vogel is fearless and unfazed.
“No,” she says, when asked if she found Lincoln inaccessible. “I think at this point, we just see Lincoln as a myth. But there’s a vast interest in Lincoln as a person.” But she’s also quick to point out that Lincoln is by no means the focus of the play.
The play is exhaustively researched. Vogel says she spent 10 years reading, and reading, and then reading some more.
“It became addictive,” she said. “I finally said, ‘I can’t read anymore, I’ve got to start writing.’ Ten years is enough.” Despite her exhaustive research, she knows the fact-checkers in the audience will find fault. But she’s not too worried about that.
“It’s not history; it’s a play,” she says. “It has to be funny, moving and dramatic. I can’t worry about offending any historians.” Instead, she’s more interested in the importance of building community.
“We have, since the 1980s, been concentrating on family values rather than community values,” she says. “That’s exclusion instead of inclusion. If something’s happening to your neighbor, it’s happening to you.” She’s appalled by the attitude, “I’ve got my health care, so why should I worry about it?” Her interest in community has extended into the way she and director Jessica Thebus are staging the play. Not only will local singing groups entertain at many of the performances, but the people on stage may look familiar. Those who have, for decades, hungered for the Huntington to include more local actors will be heartened by the “Civil War Christmas” cast. It features talented locals such as Ken Cheeseman, Karen MacDonald and Jacqui Parker.
“I’m very, very happy with the cast,” says Vogel. “The auditions made it very clear how strong the acting is (in Boston). Why (cast from New York) when there’s so much talent here? And I don’t know how you celebrate community without using the local community of actors.”
A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS Huntington Theatre Company, Friday through Dec. 13. Tickets are $20-$82.50 Call 617-266-0800.