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A CurtainUp Review
The March

Imagine a great, segmented body moving in contractions and dilations at a rate of twelve or fifteen miles a day, a creature of a hundred thousand feet. It is tubular in its being and tentacled to the roads and bridges over which it travels. It sends out as antennae its men and horses. It consumes everything in its path. It is an immense organism, with a small brain. That would be General Sherman. All the orders for our vast movements issue from that brain. They are carried via the general and colonels and field officers for distribution to the body of us. This is the creature's nervous system. And any one of the sixty thousand of us has no identity but as a soul in the body of this giant creature's function, which is to move forward and consume all before it.—Dr. Sartorius,
“War is hell.” Major General William Tecumseh Sherman said this because he unleashed it. His infamous march, a combination of scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners, and search-and-destroy policies, ravaged its way to Atlanta, then to Savannah, then through the heart of South Carolina, where the Secessionists began the rebellion. Sherman’s shock-and-awe strategy became a textbook example of total war, its aim to destroy the enemy’s ability to fight back by denying the Dixie devils crops and food, railroads, armament, supplies, and support from civilians too frightened to resist. The Johnny Rebs who put “states’ wrongs” above their loyalty to the Constitution could expect no mercy. Indeed, the most fanatical champions of chattel slavery wanted--and deserved--none.

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.

The March,, adapted and directed by Frank Galati from E.L. Doctorow’s novel
Cast: Alana Arenas (Wilma), Ian Barford (Arly Wilcox), K. Todd Freeman (Roscoe/Jake Early/Moses Brown/Calvin Harper, May 31 – June 10), Martha Lavey (Letitia Pettibone/Nurse), Mariann Mayberry (Mattie Jameson), James Vincent Meredith (Coalhouse Walker) and Alan Wilder (John Jameson/Sgt. Baumgartner/Gen. William Hazen/Josiah Culp) with Will Allan (Lt. Clarke/Sgt. Stephen Walsh), Phillip James Brannon (Roscoe/Jake Early/Moses Brown/Calvin Harper, April 5 – May 30), Cliff Chamberlain (Maj. Morrison), Patrick Clear (Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Wayne/Edwin Stanton/Old Man/Gen. Joseph A. Mower), Carrie Coon (Emily Thompson), Alex Goldklang (Boy on the March), Harry Groener (Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman), Stephen Louis Grush (Will B. Kirkland), Anthony Kayer (Boy on the March), Michael Mahler (Sgt. Malone/Gen. Henry W. Slocum), Shannon Matesky (Pearl), Luce Metrius (Boy on the March), Andy Monson (Boy on the March), John Mossman (Col. Teack), Alex Newkirk (Boy on the March), Alex Ring (Boy on the March), Joe Sinopoli (Boy on the March), Philip R. Smith (Dr. Wrede Sartorius), Alex Stage (Boy on the March) and L.J. Slavin (Musician).
Scenic design: James Schuette
Costumes: Virgil C. Johnson
Lighting: James F. Ingalls
Sound and original music: : Josh Schmidt
Proections: From 4/14/12 to 6/1012.
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre 1650 N Halsted St.
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