BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org April 13, 2012 3:14PM
Shannon Matesky stars as Pearl and Harry Groener stars as General William Tecumseh Sherman in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of “The March,” based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow.
◆ Through June 10
◆ Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
◆ Tickets, $20-$78
◆ (312) 335-1650;
Updated: April 17, 2012 1:48PM
Today, it takes barely half an hour to fly east from Atlanta, Ga., to the lushly green port city of Savannah.
But in what was to become the beginning of the end in this country’s Civil War, it took Major General William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union Army — 62,000 troops — more than a month to reach the sea. And by the time it was all over, his unabashed scorched-earth policy had left the region savaged with many freed blacks and white refugees staggering alongside the soldiers.
What has gone down in the history books as “Sherman’s March to the Sea,” was an operation that began in the recently Union-captured city of Atlanta in Nov. 15, 1864, and ended with the taking of the port of Savannah, and the city’s surrender on Dec. 21. The general’s Christmastime telegram to President Lincoln read: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”
In “The March,” his much-heralded 2005 novel, E.L. Doctorow (author of Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and Homer & Langley), gave us something of an American “Iliad.” Now, adapter-director Frank Galati is bringing the author’s Civil War epic to Steppenwolf Theatre in a world-premiere production. His 26-person cast is led by Broadway-bred actor Harry Groener as Sherman, or “Uncle Billy” as his men called him.
For Doctorow, “The March” began almost 25 years ago when he read a basic history about Sherman’s exploits.
“The terrain he covered, the way his men made camp and foraged as they went — it was unique. Nothing like that had been seen before, and I saw the possibility of a novel in it, but never got started on anything. Over the years, I read Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, and looked at a great many photos of the period, but it wasn’t until George Bush’s war in Iraq that the idea returned to me with the right force.”
Doctorow gives us Sherman — unstable but brilliant, determined to be one with his soldiers, yet somewhat detached. And he weaves a slew of other characters into the mix, too: Pearl, the pretty young former slave who attracts the attention of the Union soldiers; Colonel Sartorius, the field surgeon for whom amputation is the only answer to many injuries; and Arly and Will, a pair of Confederate soldiers who might have been dreamed up by Mark Twain.
“As wars deteriorate, all questions of right and wrong tend to disappear, and what we consider to be civil behavior goes up in flames,” said Doctorow. “Sherman’s campaign uprooted an entire culture to an extent not seen before. The cumulative effect was a great population of the dispossessed, both black and white, who became a sort of floating world perpetually on the move.
“As for Sherman, he was probably bi-polar. Interestingly, he was not an abolitionist, and maybe he was even a bit of a racist. He didn’t allow African Americans to fight with him. But he believed the South had committed treason and he would punish it.”
Galati began working on his adaptation of The March as soon as the book was published.
“Initially, the cost of the rights were exorbitant for Steppenwolf, and a movie deal, which ultimately didn’t happen, was in the works,” Galati recalled. “I gave up on it after completing the first act. But then, while I was packing for a move, I came across the script again, re-read it, and really liked it, and circumstances had changed.
“I see this story as a quest for meaning,” he added. “It’s about the mystery of war — why it jazzes people up and makes their adrenalin pump, and why it turns up the ardor and patriotism in them.”