Aside from being a ruthless killer-general who put a stake through the bleeding heart of the Old South, and did so right in its own backyard, William Tecumseh Sherman was quite the student of human nature. Indeed, as played by the ever-restless, raw and verbose Harry Groener in Frank Galati's rich, erudite and high-minded — if overly chilly and elliptical — new Steppenwolf Theatre stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's 2005 novel "The March," Sherman's soliloquies and colloquies have a decidedly Shakespearean air.
Falstaff spoke of honor in "Henry IV, Part One." Sherman, among other things, talks in "The March" about the limits of human generosity, an impulse, he tells us, that quickly gives way to envy, closely followed by indifference. And unlike a lot of the leaders who followed him, this speechifying, self-doubting Sherman understands the difference between war and nation-building. All things considered, he finds war much less messy.
"We don't leave a new civil government behind," he observes of his own Viking-like actions in Savannah, Ga., and South Carolina, knowing full well a new civil government was what the newly freed slaves were expecting from, and deserved from, their sadly reluctant Union emancipators. "We burn the country and go on."
The prominence that Galati gives to such musings on the nature of war and humanity are entirely in keeping with Doctorow's remarkable novel — a scrupulously researched and exquisitely expressed account of Sherman's march through the South with 60,000 enforcers of the Union will.
In novel form, "The March" is by no means just for Civil War buffs, albeit beloved by many such aficionados, but an exploration of the defining era in which Americans fought Americans on American soil penned from multiple points of view: the generals; the slaves freed into God-knows-what landscape; a surgeon patching up the wounded; a photographer chronicling the dead; Southern belles ripped from their comfortable plantations, being as slavery always paid very well until Sherman banged on the door of those who trafficked therein. Crucially, "The March" is also an allegory for America at any war; much of the novel was penned during the waging of the war in Iraq.
Doctorow created a pair of antiheroes of the whole horrific shebang of the 1860s. Arly Wilcox (Ian Barford, who is relentless here) and Will B. Kirkland (Stephen Louis Grush) are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this world, a likable pair of former felons who switch sides and allegiances at will and, like everyone else, mostly just try to stay alive and thrive. As "The March" makes clear, the Civil War scrambled the power structure of the South. As Sherman's beast roiled through town and country, the formerly lofty were cut down to earth and the once-oppressed could now maybe make a buck.
This is not an easy novel to adapt for the stage. Au contraire. Not only is the canvas colossal, but the story is told in a series of small, intimate encounters, often from the point of view of those on the fringes of the main event. Doctorow creates a bevy of characters (even though there are 26 actors in the cast at Steppenwolf, most everyone is playing multiple roles) who take center stage only to vanish just as quickly as they arrived, which is, of course, what happens in a war. People come. People go. The cynical surgeon Wrede Sartorius (played, with eloquent detachment by Philip R. Smith) seems like the glue of the work for much of its duration, and yet he too disappears before the end, leaving the conclusion of the story to others.
So one can understand why Galati's stage version feels episodic and fractured, even as it feels fully true. To have approached this work otherwise would have risked compromising the intent of the novel. Instead, Galati and a formidable cast let Doctorow's own language ring powerfully from the stage — the words roll not just from Groener's passionate mouth but from a plethora of fine actors, including Carrie Coon (delightfully wry), Phillip James Brannon (broiling with complexity) and James Vincent Meredith, who, in the role of the optimistic Coalhouse Walker, gives the show much of its life and hope. There are few false notes at any point in a show that is staged simply, directly and with constant integrity and felicity to the source.
That said, Galati has not yet wrestled to the ground one inherent challenge with this work — the theatrical imperative that he, in some way, show us the march in both its fullness and its essence. That's not easy and Doctorow is content mostly to let it take its amorphous, ravenous, self-perpetuating form in the imaginations of the reader. But the stage is not the page, and the march is nonetheless defined and articulated in "The March" and must, therefore, somehow be revealed on the stage in a way that we can grasp its enormity. We must feel like we can grasp the full story to understand its components. The production remains in need of the right visual metaphor that might grab you in the gut.
After all, the characters roiled by the war often take refuge in their bodies. So it goes here. Bodies fall and bodies flail. Yet this production is, for the most part, a strangely asexual affair, somehow missing the way violent uprootings stir the basest and most beautiful desires.
"The March" deserves further productions, and if Galati can add those more visceral elements to the wise portrait of America, under duress, ringing from the Steppenwolf stage, and if he can frame everything so we can feel the picture throb, the journey will be all the more profound.
When: Through June 10
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 2 hours, 50 mins.
Tickets: $20-$78 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org