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Steppenwolf captures pulse and horror of war with Sherman’s march through Georgia

Submitted by on Apr 20, 2012 – 1:51 am

Review: “The March,” adapted by Frank Galati from the novel by E.L. Doctorow, in its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre through June 10. ****

By Lawrence B. Johnson

War is an ever-recycling perversity that mankind brings down upon itself. It is a plague that lays waste to land and lives and casts its survivors on courses unforeseen. Nor does the drumbeat ever cease. War follows upon war. Its tread is constant.

That is the essence of “The March,” Frank Galati’s vivid adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel about Sherman’s locust-like sweep through Georgia in the closing months of the Civil War. What makes Steppenwolf Theatre’s epic tableau so galvanizing is not its retelling of history, but rather the intimate, inexorable echo of its drum.

Between November 1864 and March 1865, as Confederate resistance was weakening, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman – Uncle Billy, as his troops called him — led a vast army of Union soldiers on an earth-scorching campaign through Georgia with the single purpose of burning out and beating down the opposition on its home ground and thereby hastening the war’s end.

Yet even as the march succeeded, there were collateral consequences. Freed slaves, widowed Southern women and their children fell in behind the Union column – to be fed and cared for or dispatched in some way or other. Not only did these hangers-on encumber Sherman’s march, but the wounded, sick and dying also outstripped his medical resources. And on the other side of the battle lines, or more accurately blurring those lines, desperately beleaguered and ill-equipped Confederate soldiers found themselves isolated and adrift, or simply slipped away through the confusion and horror.

These are the images that adaptor-director Galati, a superb production team and a huge, yet sharply individualized cast bring to life and relevance in “The March.” While it may be a war like any other war, through this textured re-enactment we are made privy to the souls beneath its smoky blanket, in all their aspirations, contrivances and fears.

On the wide stage of this saga, three main arcs run in parallel: One tracks Sherman (given human frailty but martial clarity by Harry Groener) as he grapples with Confederate resistance on the one hand and on the other the swelling ranks of humanity his march has attracted. The second story line follows two Confederate deserters, a waggish, resourceful devil (played with irresistible charm and drollery by Ian Barford) and his puppy-like pal (Stephen Louis Grush). Crafty, visionary general and sly, waffling deserter, the alpha and omega of warriors. On parallel lines to infinity.

The third story traces the Dickensian fortunes of an adolescent slave called Pearl, so named because her fair skin passes for white. Shannon Matesky gives a roundly appealing performance as a spirited girl who rolls with circumstances on a path that leads her from scrappy kid to medical assistant to a woman resolute in her new-found freedom.

Pearl’s path takes her, and us, to the wounded heart of “The March,” the medical tent where blood and tragedy and madness converge in uniforms of Blue and Gray and in the hard-worn attire of ordinary civilians. Here we also find another commander, a doctor (the cool, statuesque Philip R. Smith) who ministers to all comers equally and views the whole miserable scene with much the same necessary detachment as Sherman.

Physician and ex-slave are joined by a young Southern woman of erstwhile privilege who now staunches blood in a Union medical tent. Carrie Coon offers a portrayal of disciplined calm that borders on reticence. Hers is perhaps the least convincing, least complete character in this great panoply. One of the chief rewards of the play’s expanse is the plausible development and progress of its characters, but this gentle belle evolves very little, only to make a precipitous decision that surprises us no less than it confounds the good doctor.

Imaginative and sympathetic portraits are offered of two other blacks: the Union soldier Coalhouse Walker (the strapping, good-humored James Vincent Meredith), and the freed slave Wilma, played with sweet temperament by Alana Arenas.

Sound – the artful work of Josh Schmidt — plays a large role in the depiction of Sherman’s grand army on the march, on the gallop, unleashing its siege cannon. You see few soldiers but sense many. Likewise, James Schuette’s arching, uncluttered set design creates an aura of vastness, in literal space and in the significance of these unfolding events. Virgil C. Johnson’s period costumes, whether the plain garb of slaves, the tatters of hounded Confederates or the patrician uniforms of Sherman’s general staff, contribute immensely to more than the play’s authenticity: They enrobe its humanity.

Galati, with a military commander’s strategic cunning, marshals his formidable troupe of actors through the twists and risks of this multilayered drama. Though locations and characters may change in a twinkling, the narrative cloth never frays. It is all one story, one fabric: the tale of an episode in American history and yet the whole history of war in one glimpse.

In one memorable vignette, Sherman watches through field glasses as his cannon pound a Confederate garrison into submission, into oblivion. He is ecstatic. We could be observing Alexander the Great or Wellington or Patton. It is the drumbeat, the exhilaration of conquest.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: As Gen. Sherman (Harry Groener, foreground) scans the battlefield, his Union soldiers cheer their comrades’ victory. Descending: Raggedy Confederate soldiers (portrayed from left by Stephen Louis Grush and Ian Barford) stand their ground. The freed slave Pearl (Shannon Matesky) recognizes her white father. Harry Groener as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Below: A photo op with Gen. Sherman (Harry Groener, seated) and his staff. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)

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