Chicago Theatre Review
The Road Less Traveled is Exemplary in “The March”!
By Lazlo Collins
As the lights dim, and the moment you hear the footsteps of the soldiers in the distance, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in anticipation and delight. A poor lone figure is at a grave…
“The March”, now playing at The Steppenwolf Theater, hits the mark of both sweeping historical drama and entertaining theater work. The man and the march in question are none other than General William Tecumseh Sherman and his relentless move through the south in the time of our country’s bitter civil war. As the play moves us with General Sherman’s troops, we enter the action after the taking of Atlanta. The scenes take us through his campaign and ultimately to North Carolina. The mud filled days and nights for the soldiers, and those that surround them, is laid out with empathy among the brutal realities of war.
Frank Galati’s adaptation, from E.L.Doctorow’s novel of the same name, is grand in its ambition and tone. Any adaptation of Doctorow is never a simple matter. The sweeping historical novels with fictional embellishments are what Mr. Doctorow is known for in his books.
Fans and Doctorow aficionados may remember his 1975 novel “Ragtime”. This novel was adapted into a hit musical in 1996, and then revived on Broadway in 2009. It covers historical figures, class struggles, and a sweeping American panorama.
It is with the loving attention to historical figures and dark feelings of American nostalgia that “The March” moves across the stage like the fog that surrounds it. Much of the success of “The March” is in its ability to be both a great story and a sad tale of lives torn apart during time of war. We see all in Sherman’s path affected by his military march. Rich, poor, white, black, civilian and army are all casualties of the man many would never know, but feel his soldier’s heavy oppression.
As “General Sherman”, Harry Groener, makes a fine commander. He commands the stage with his contemplative musings; all the while embracing his sense of purpose and goals. His explanation of a lost soldier, “losing a solider is a loss of a number, depleting his ranks by one”, was a moment into the man who we are led to believe is ruthless leader. We see how he struggles with those that he takes orders from, and those he governs. The audience sees his journey as a difficult one. He must finish the march he started.
If there were clowns during the dark days of this civil war journey, then the characters of Will B Kirkland (Stephen Louis Grush) and Arly Wilcox (Ian Barford) would fit the bill. The rouges of this journey are funny and sometimes sad. They take us out of the business of war, but also remind us of its casualties too. Mr. Barford is a particular standout in his role. He engages the audience winningly throughout his journey and divine interventions.
Other enchanting characters were Carrie Coon’s “Emily Thompson”, Marian Mayberry’s “Mattie Johnson”, and Philip R. Smith’s “Dr. Sartorius”. The actors in these intertwined roles exemplify the delicate balances of duty versus circumstance. Each character pressing on through their march; unable to completely grasp where it will ultimately take them when it is over.
I loved the sweet segment of Coalhouse Walker (James Vincent Meredith) and Wilma (Alana Arenas). There joined journeys gave us hope in the face of all despair and confusion. These actors connected me with the only characters that escaped the misery and the loneliness of the war. I wished them well as they walked out of sight. Their brief moments on stage were surprising; and haunting.
As the play begins with her, and so it will end, so stands Pearl (Shannon Matesky). Ms. Matesky’s spirited and sweet young woman is transformed before our eyes. From poor slave waif, to young confident woman bound for the North, her performance was rich with spirit and life. Pearl’s innocence was both uplifting and sweet as she moved from moment to moment. She embraced each moment of her circumstance as a great adventure, even as she took care of the woman who used to be her oppressor.
I thought the Set Design (James Schuette) and the Lighting Design (James F Ingalls) were superb. The gray mud washed interiors and the haunting dim foggy rivers were so real and set the tone so well.
And certainly, Mr. Frank Galati’s adaptation and direction were right on the mark. Not having read “The March”, as I am assuming most theater goers will not have read either, I believe this adaptation brings to life the essentials of the story we need to understand for this performance. Keeping the direction simple with strong movements on and off stage, we got to really listen to the characters in the quiet moments of civil war.
“The March” has a spirit likes it title: Strong, deliberate, confident. It may be long for some; but come prepared to take a well-traveled journey into the mind of a General and into the hearts of those that stand in his way.
“The March” continues at Steppenwolf Theater through 10 June 2012.