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A CurtainUp Review
Turning 62,000 Union soldiers into foragers, scavengers, looters, and, yes, rapists who fought little but took much, “Uncle Billy” created refugees or corpses wherever he went. These included former slaves who, believing they were headed toward freedom, followed the army for protection. But because Sherman was, by today’s standards, a racist who refused help from black soldiers and repudiated these camp followers, collateral damage took on a terrible new meaning. (The hopeful stragglers were often captured by the Confederates and punished severely by traitors for “treason.” Many were killed when Union soldiers pulled up pontoon bridges, leaving them trapped and doomed.)
Like his superb cultural collage Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow’s novel The March, here distilled into a three-hour action drama by Steppenwolf’s Tony Award-winning Frank Galati, concretizes a pivotal moment and a vast panorama. Adapter and director Galati translates a sweeping military maneuver into representative lives — and deaths— of Southern victims and Northern invaders. Like Ragtime, it never pretends to be history in words: It combines real figures with imaginary ones (including the father of Coalhouse Walker, the incendiary to come). Fittingly, it’s the final offering in Steppenwolf’s 2011/2012 “Dispatches from the Homefront” series.
James Schuette’s vast set creates a kind of neutral zone resembling the interior of a vast barn that’s instantly transformed by flying set pieces into field hospitals, deserted plantation manses, field headquarters, bridges and culverts — from Milledgeville, Georgia to Columbia, South Carolina (far more destroyed by fire and rapine than Atlanta ever was) and on to North Carolina until Appomattox ends the ordeal.
Creating what reality wasn’t smart enough to supply, Doctorow/Galati’s most powerful innovations are their strategic, if imagined, juxtapositions that bring a tragedy to ground. Here Pearl (Shannon Matesky) plays a literate escaped slave who becomes attached to an Irish lad (Anthony Kayer) who was paid $300 as a substitute for a rich New Yorker who escaped the conflict. Recalling Mother Courage and her opportunistic retinue, a scurrilous Dixie dodger and deserter named Arly Wilcox (Ian Barford) teams up with a simpleton soldier (Stephen Louis Grush) to be captured by both sides: predatory Arly finally poses as a battlefield photographer who almost assassinates Sherman and his staff (much like Sarah’s purported attack on the Vice President in Ragtime).
Philosophical amid the carnage he creates, Sherman (Harry Groener) gets the show’s big speeches (drawn from his letters and memoir). He knows that this war was preceded by and will be followed another, that war must be made so terrible that nations learn to loathe such self-slaughter. Accused of mental illness at the battle of Shiloh, Sherman steels himself against sentiment, arguing that, however terrible death is to a dispensable soldier, even worse, it’s one less warrior for the right.
As much as Sherman despises the “darkies,” he can resort to a “hearts and minds” strategy by promising freedmen 40 acres and a mule. Along the way Secretary of War Edwin Stanton chastises Sherman for his insensitivity to the souls he’s saved. Dr. Wrede Sartorius (Philip R. Smith) heroically tries to cope with the growing wounded and bury the mounting dead as he considers the army a vast beast to be placated with endless sacrifice. A Southern belle (Mariann Mayberry), the spoiled daughter of a Georgian judge, cracks under the weight of losing everything that made tomorrow welcome.
In this parade of death, fleshed out by a whopping 26 actors, a lot of characters, especially the soldiers, rush by too fast to register. But what Galati intends is a whole much greater than the parts of this march through hell to victory. It’s the cumulative loss, always individual and usually unsung, that gives these six months (November 1864 - March 1865) such power to hurt and hope to heal. Adding to the authenticity are such period standards as “While We Were Marching Through Georgia” and “Just Before the Battle, Mother.”
The March is much--an awesome adventure, cautionary tale, slice of death, time capsule of terror, and performance tour de force. (No one in this vibrant ensemble ever lets down the cause.) But for all its sweep, scope and movable musketry and despite the size of the stage, it seems a tad claustrophobic. Though the play celebrates the itinerant army photographers who chronicled the carnage, oddly we glimpse no such vintage pictures to drive home the sheer savagery of this march. You can at the same time leave too little to the imagination —and too much.