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Role Playing: Ian Barford revels in the wiliness of an ambivalent rebel in Doctorow’s ‘March’

Submitted by on May 17, 2012 – 4:52 pm

Interview: The Charleston, Ill., native says it was the playwright’s poetic language and the character’s mixed motives that drew him to the part at Steppenwolf. The play runs through June 10.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

He’s just making it up as he goes along, the Confederate turncoat portrayed by Ian Barford in Steppenwolf Theatre’s current production of “The March.” That’s what Barford likes about his opportunistic character called Arley. And in a sense, the actor says, he’s doing much the same thing on stage from night to the next, trying to track the pitch and roll of a soldier who’s trying to find his own meaning.

“One of the great pleasures about playing Arley is that it’s very much in progress,” says Barford. “I learn more about him with every performance, and I can’t wait to get back out there and have another crack at it. The role doesn’t answer questions, it asks questions. That’s a wonderful mystery to be engaged with — to continue to explore this human being. It’s the best part I’ve ever played in my life.”

In E.L. Doctorow’s novel “The March,” adapted for the Steppenwolf stage and directed by Frank Galati, Arley is a raggedy Confederate soldier imprisoned and sentenced to death for falling asleep on guard duty.

But with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union troops sweeping across Georgia against a depleted Confederate army, Arley avoids the firing squad by agreeing to fight the overwhelming enemy. Clever devil that he is, he manages to elude death in all its guises and – accompanied by a rather simple compatriot called Will – begins a survival two-step that finds him switching sides as expediency dictates. His path becomes a central arc of “The March.”

“Arley is a con artist who lives by his guile,” says Barford, a native of Charleston, Ill., who studied theater at Illinois State University and has been active in Chicago drama since the early 1990s. “There’s this relentless drive in him, but he’s also a bit of an actor. He needs an audience. He talks about himself as talented, gifted. He wants to have a stage and to be recognized for that talent. I think that’s very important in his relationship with Will (played by Stephen Louis Grush). Frank said if this were being filmed as a movie, the camera would be shooting Arley over Will’s shoulder.”

One of the most fascinating wrinkles in Arley’s psychology and outlook, says Barford, is his relationship to God.

“Not so much God in any religious sense, but in how Arley connects with the idea of providence. He’s always reading signs and interpreting what they mean – and ascribing such auguries to a great power to which he wants to align himself in order to survive.”

Arley is not just morally adaptable, says Barford. He’s a web of contradictions with a keen sense of self that eventually turns into a consciousness of his destiny.

“He has a facility for language,” the actor says. “Wonderful bursts of poetry come out of him. He’s also like Hector, in ‘The Iliad.’ Hector realizes he’s going to die and wants to leave with one heroic act. It’s the idea of a good death. Arley comes to that point. He’s living through this horrific war, and it’s a really profound shift that happens to him.

“I’m reading a book about the Booths — Edwin and John Wilke – called  ‘My Thoughts Be Bloody’ by Nora Titone. The Booths’ father was a famous actor, widely considered the greatest actor of his day the 1830s and 40s. John Wilkes Booth, perhaps the least talented, had the idea of writing himself into the history books and that thought became an obsession.

“Similarly, Arley begins to believe the most meaningful thing he can do is try to avenge what has come down on his people at the hands of the Union. We in the North sometimes forget there were a lot of people in the South who were not necessarily slave owners or who even believed in the cause, but still experienced a tremendous amount of devastation. Sherman’s (scorched-earth) tactics are still debated to this day. It’s important to understand that aspect of Arley, as a man of the South and in that sense a loyal Confederate.

“Up to a point, Arley is very jovial, optimistic, poetic, funny. Then all of a sudden, this sort of desperation takes over and we begin to see hate and rage in him for what the Union has done to his society. The mystery of it is never quite resolved. Every time I go out and do it, I feel I’m learning more about it.  I continue to explore the humanity of this person and where his real convictions lie. I don’t think he knows.”

What Arley shows with consistency is the wiliness and genius of a man whose wits are his only hope for survival.

“We don’t hear about a family, a wife,” says Barford. “He’s a lone wolf. He has a very animal presence. Just the graphic way he talks about women is remarkable. And he can’t relate to conventions. He says it’s only the dead in their graves who should live regularly. Arley is a potent force, but also dangerous. You might have a lot of fun with him, but he can also get you into trouble.”

It wasn’t strictly the intriguing character of Doctorow’s waffling Confederate that captured Barford’s interest, the actor says.

“The immediate connection for me was the rhythm of the language. Doctorow is extremely successful in creating individual voices. His characters think and express themselves differently. Arley has this wonderful range of verbal facility. I think he’s quite a reader even though he has very little formal education. Frank has really emphasized this story as a work of literature, and he has been dedicated to letting Doctorow’s language do its work.

“I once heard Peter O’Toole say acting is the art of speaking. The complexity of language in ‘The March’ has made this experience, for me, a wonderful and profound challenge.”

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Actor Ian Barford. Descending: Ian Barford, as Arley, in various scenes of the Steppenwolf Theatre production of “The March,” based on the novel of E.L. Doctorow, adapted and directed by Frank Galati. (Production photos by Michael Brosilow.)

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