Steppenwolf stages powerfully acted yet distant 'March'
As much as William Tecumseh Sherman's presence looms over "The March," Steppenwolf Theatre's impressive world premiere adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's 2005 novel, it takes a rather long time to introduce him.
In fact, we encounter every other major character in director/adapter Frank Galati's intellectually rigorous if emotionally detached adaptation before we meet the Union Army general, whose "scorched earth" campaign through Georgia and the Carolinas toward the end of the Civil War sounded the death knell for the Confederacy.
Perhaps that's the point, insofar as meeting the people directly affected by Sherman's "total war" approach raises our expectations for the man, expectations Harry Groener effortlessly exceeds.
And while he does not command a lot of stage time, Groener, best known as The Mayor on TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," is nevertheless a commanding presence.
Groener's Sherman is an edgy, beleaguered, complex man whose soliloquies reveal ingrained racial prejudice, contempt for politicians, distaste for governing and an absolute determination to punish secessionists for their unpardonable disloyalty. Here is a man who orders freed slaves receive 40 acres of land not as compensation for their suffering but to sever their attachment to his army. Here is a man who can order Confederate prisoners be used as land mine fodder, but who also expresses heartfelt compassion for a fellow general on the death of a son, something Sherman well understands. Here is a man whose cream-colored vest remains unsoiled by blood and ash, who never personally encounters the suffering his "scorched earth" policy visits upon civilians, nor the trauma endured by his soldiers, whose deaths Sherman views as a military disadvantage.
That same dispassion underscores this joint commission with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Well-told and superbly acted, "The March" -- except for the raw grief Mariann Mayberry's Mattie Jameson expresses upon seeing her dead son -- fails to establish the emotional connection that would make the drama exceptional. And yet it is definitely a show worth seeing, and not just for the history lesson.
Pairing fiction with fact, Doctorow chronicles Sherman's march to the sea from the perspective of the officers and grunts, dispossessed landowners and freed slaves, observers and scoundrels.
Among the more than 30 characters (portrayed by 26 actors, most of whom take on multiple roles) who populate this epic is Pearl (Shannon Matesky), the newly freed daughter of a female slave and the plantation owner. She disguises herself first as a boy and later as a white girl, and worries that now, as before, she is wholly dependent upon white men. There's the ever-optimistic Coalhouse Walker (James Vincent Meredith, the picture of decency), a free man eager to work his own land, who woos Alana Arenas' strong-willed Wilma, former servant to Emily Thompson (the graciously stoic and palpably weary Carrie Coon). Once the privileged daughter of a Georgia Supreme Court justice, Emily finds herself elbow-deep in blood as a nurse in a Union Army field hospital, where she has a passionless affair with Dr. Wrede Sartorius (a refined, coolly detached Philip R. Smith), admirable for his willingness to treat every patient and contemptible for the unfeeling way he goes about it.
But our primary guides on this journey are a pair of derelict, darkly comic Confederate soldiers wonderfully played by Ian Barford (whose performance is as compelling as his character is confounding) and Stephen Louis Grush. Barford is Arly Wilcox, a Falstaffian rogue and consummate opportunist, who switches sides and identities in order to survive.
Grush plays Arly's young protégé, Will B. Kirkland, a deserter uncomfortable in the role of turncoat.
Ultimately, the characters' stories are those of survival and transformation: from slave to free man and woman; from aristocrat to refugee; from opportunist to terrorist -- a conversion that is especially resonant today.
Then again, what is war but the ultimate instrument of transformation, allowing us to sweep away the past to embrace the future?
"The March"★ ★ ★
Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through June 10. 2 p.m. Wednesday performances May 9-30. No shows May 5.
Parking: Metered street parking, $10 in the pay garage adjacent to the theater
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes, with intermission
Rating: For teens and older; adult themes