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The March
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Also see John's review of The Rainmaker

The March
Harry Groener
Writer-director Frank Galati has once again brought an E. L. Doctorow novel to the stage, and like Galati's earlier Doctorow project, 1997's Ragtime, his adaptation of The March, now in its world premiere production at Steppenwolf, is a sprawling multi-character saga of a seminal period in American history. Based on Doctorow's 2005 Civil War novel, The March follows General William T. Sherman's brutal 1864 "March to the Sea" and his subsequent campaign north through the Carolinas. In those campaigns, much of the South's economy was destroyed, and the Civil War was to an end shortly afterwards. Doctorow mixes fictional characters of his creation with historical figures, and Galati has fashioned an epic play involving 30 of them played by 17 actors plus an ensemble of eight soldiers and one musician. The characters represent major groups involved in and affected by the March: southern landowners and slave-owners uprooted from their homes, Union officers, Confederate and Union soldiers, military medical personnel and other hangers-on, and centrally, General Williams Tecumseh Sherman himself.

While epic in its story and the size of its cast, Galati and his design team have found a spare approach to depicting its many locales between Atlanta, Savannah, Georgia and the Carolinas. James Schuette places all the action in a room which might be an armory or some such place, and this dark, bluish-gray hue is carried forward through the lighting and costume design by James F. Ingalls and Virgil C. Johnson respectively. Specific locations are suggested through furniture props, scenery flats flown down, and a modest use of projections, including surtitles indicating time and place. Together with Johnson's elaborately realistic costumes that range from hoop skirts to bloodied uniforms, there's complete clarity about where we are. The most horrific details of the casualties are left to our imagination.

The action alternates among five sets of characters. General Sherman and his officers are the most central. Sherman, brilliant but suggested to be possibly mad from the destruction he is wreaking, is played with a stunning mix of humor and tragedy by Broadway's Harry Groener. Emily Thompson (Carrie Coon) is the daughter of a Georgia Supreme Court Justice whose home has been appropriated by the Union Army. She comes to assist the army surgeon Dr. Wrede Sartorius (Philip R. Smith) and it's through their experience we learn most of the horrible injuries, illness and deaths of soldiers and civilians alike. Providing comic relief are the foot soldiers Arly Wilcox and Will Kirkland, who escape death sentences in a Confederate military prison and pose as Union soldiers after stealing uniforms from two fallen Yankees. They appear to be the ultimate survivors—completely amoral and uncommitted to either side. Ian Barford creates a vivid Arly—cocksure, not nearly as smart as he thinks, but smarter than the dim Will (believably sad and vulnerable as played by Stephen Louis Grush) and willing to do whatever it takes to survive the war.

The freed teenage slave Pearl (Shannon Matesky) shares a similar chameleon quality with Arly and Will. The interracial child of her former owner, she can pass as white, and also passes for a boy for a time as well. Matesky captures the ingenuity and wisdom beyond her years that makes her a survivor, faring better than her owner's widow Mattie Jameson (Mariann Mayberry), who goes mad after her husband's death and the loss of their plantation. The fifth set of characters is a pair of freed slaves: Coalhouse Walker, Sr.—the eventual father of Ragtime's hero—and his ladylove Wilma. James Vincent Meredith is the strong, resourceful Coalhouse and Alana Arenas plays the ambitious Wilma with sensitivity.

In bringing The March to the stage, Galati succeeds in making us understand the enormity of the destruction and pain caused by Sherman's march. His stellar cast, with not a weak link among the whole 25-person ensemble, brings this to life through their creation of full-bodied people. The strength of these performers and Doctorow's characters give a sense of hope and survival that keeps The March watchable throughout its two-hour and forty-five minute playing time, despite the darkness of its subject matter.

The March shows war to be horrific, and the Civil War even more so as it was fought on our soil against our own countrymen. That said, the inevitability of the outcome—we know when, where and how "The March" and hence our Civil War will end—prevents a more satisfying story arc. Like the many dispossessed slaves who followed the Sherman's troops at the end, we and the characters are carried on to the inevitable conclusion. We're not as drawn to The March's characters as we were to Coalhouse, Sarah and Mother of Ragtime, whose journeys were less predictable. Still, The March is a powerful play, and Harry Groener's stunning performance as Sherman should not be missed.

The March will be performed in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through June 10, 2012. For tickets, visit the Box Office; call 312-335-11650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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