Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s 2005 Civil War novel “The March” adheres gallantly to the complexity of the book’s sweeping themes and frequently contradictory characters, and it does so with an outstanding (and enormous) Steppenwolf Theater ensemble and spare, elegant stagecraft. But while never simplistic or sentimental, the adaptation struggles to marry ideas, images, character and drama into a fully involving whole.
Galati invests the show with a noticeably Shakespearean quality, with scenes transitioning easily from one sequence to another on James Schuette’s empty black box in a way that feels Elizabethan. In many instances, characters step forward into a spotlight to deliver soliloquies, often verbatim from Doctorow.
Nobody does this more often than Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman (Harry Groener), one of the historical figures amidst many fictional ones and the catalyst for the titular march itself, directing the Union Army on a final, brutal path northward from Georgia through South Carolina. In Groener’s fine perf, Sherman is, in turn, calculating and convincingly teetering on madness, but also deeply philosophical.
Other perspectives come through with an equally vivid sense of internal inconsistency. Pearl (Shannon Matesky), the light-skinned daughter of her enslaved mother and the white master, joins the march north like many other freed slaves following along, attracting a series of white protectors and yet expressing uneasiness about such reliance. What, she ponders, is freedom?
Perhaps most compellingly there are Arly Wilcox (Ian Barford) and Will Kirkland (Stephen Louis Grush), less-than-competent Confederate soldiers who tend to oversleep and then switch sides to survive. Perhaps because they are a pair, and their relationship forms a gradual and fully developed bond, the show is never more entertaining than when they are onstage. Barford delivers the most complete and complex performance of all, taking a figure who could easily become silly and never letting him escape believability.
But while the robust performances and rich language keep “The March” compelling, many choices feel off. Dates and locations are needlessly projected above the stage, which almost treats the material as a history lesson on which you might be tested. And Galati makes questionable decisions about which events to stage vs. transform into expository speeches — as when the key decision that Arly makes when Will is injured is told to us in retrospect rather than depicted.
The march itself, the dominant central fact of the entire piece, comes alive only in a fleeting moment or two. One occurs at the very start of the show, when Josh Schmidt’s sound design gives us the noise of solemn rhythmic steps, a crescendo of stomping that has both musicality and emotion to it. But its power is instantly dissipated in the first scene, when a family is awakened in the middle of the night with the message to hurry away before the Union army arrives to do who-knows-what-horrible-things, lacks fundamental immediacy. Galati prioritizes poetry over panic; characters give speeches rather than running before they get killed.
It’s a malady the show suffers from throughout: Characters too often seem to be telling us what they think and feel about what is happening. In Doctorow’s prose, these first-person thoughts come off as a flood of ideas and memories amidst the rush of events; they give the reader a sense that the character is experiencing something they can’t quite believe is happening even while they are forced to make an immediate decision. But Galati never finds a way to suspend our sense of time, and the speechifying feels too much like ignoring the action.
This is an immensely thoughtful show, signifying enormously, but without the necessary sound and fury.