The March at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre: An Amazing Feat.

The March at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre: An Amazing Feat.
(front) General William Tecumseh Sherman (Harry Groener) and (right) Major Morrison (Cliff Chamberlain) watch the battle from afar with other Union soldiers in Stepppenwolf's The March.

The March.
by E.L. Doctorow.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     adapted and directed by Frank Galati.
Highly Recommended.
Steppenwolf Theatre Mainstage.
Through June 10, 2012.

Chicago, Wednesday, April 18, 2012. When I first heard that Steppenwolf Theatre was mounting E.L. Doctorow's novel The March--the War and Peace-like epic about 62,000 Union soldiers along with an assortment of black and white refugees led by Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman on a 300 hundred mile March from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia--I wondered, how they could possibly adapt this large scope story to the stage.

I found out this weekend at the opening of the World-premiere of The March adapted by Frank Galati.  The fine-tuned adaptation features 26 cast members, with many playing multiple roles. The theater, itself, has been transformed into a battlefield where actors appear on the vast darkly lit stage and disappear down the reconfigured aisles.

The story unfolds through a broad collection of characters ranging from Southern belles uprooted from their comfortable lifestyles and a pair of misfit soldiers willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive to General William Tecumseh Sherman, Uncle Billy to his men, who is less fighting for the cause than his own ego.  The March, is made up of  a series of personal vignettes taken almost verbatim from the novel that show how various groups and people were touched by the war.

Like Doctorow's novel Ragtime, The March is a skillful weaving of history and imagination: Doctorow imagines himself into a crucial moment in American history and populates the world of known historical personages with a rich cast of characters who might go unrecorded in the official narrative, but who profoundly shape the American story. Galati's adaptation has captured that tapestry with a keen eye toward how to bring those shifting, contrary forces to the stage.

The cast list reads like a who's who of Chicago Theatre featuring the versatile and rising star Carrie Coon (heading to Broadway this fall) as the Southern Belle turned Union nurse Emily Thompson;  Phillip James Brannon shines in his series of demanding role changes of Roscoe/Jake Early/Moses Brown/Calvin Harper; James Vincent Meredith makes a strong and likeable Coalhouse Walker, the freed slave who courts Wilma played with her usual grace by the talented Alana Arenas.  It is a treat to see Steppenwolf's Artistis Director Martha Lavey as Letitia Pettibone and a nurse.  Harry Groener delivers a fine performance as the General William Tecumseh Sherman.  The two misfit soldiers who change their alliances with the wind in order to save their necks are well represented by Ian Barford (Arly Wilcox) and Stephen Louis Grush (Will B. Kirkland).  Philip R. Smith turns in an on-spot portrayal of the outwardly cool Dr. Wrede Sartorius.

The March also features Mariann Mayberry (Mattie Jameson),  K. Todd Freeman (taking over the roles of Roscoe/Jake Early/Moses Brown/Calvin Harper, May 31 – June 10),  Alan Wilder (John Jameson/Sgt. Baumgartner/Gen. William Hazen/Josiah Culp), Will Allan (Lt. Clarke/Sgt. Stephen Walsh), Cliff Chamberlain (Maj. Morrison), Patrick Clear (Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Wayne/Edwin Stanton/Old Man/Gen. Joseph A. Mower), Alex Goldklang (Boy on the March), 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), Alex Stage (Boy on the March) and L.J. Slavin (Musician).

The planning for this epic production started nearly six years ago when Galati called Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey saying that he was intrigued by Doctorow's novel and that he had begun adapting it.

Galati explains why he chose to adapt The March saying, “We face some of the same issues now that the country faced prior to the Civil War, particularly in the area of state's rights and the role of the federal government." He continues, "the fictional evocation of the past by a novelist like E.L. Doctorow is also an effort to seek the truth,” adding that “it’s through the fictional characters that Doctorow is able to reach into our own hearts and connect us to the events of the past. These fictional characters live a kind of italicized present; they stand out from the background of historical event.”

Tickets and Information.

Tickets are $20 to $78.  They are available at Audience Services, 1650 N Halsted St, by phone at 312 335 1650 or at Steppenwolf Theatre online.   Discount 20 for $20 tickets are available at Audience Services beginning at 11a.m. on the day of each performance (1.pm. for Sunday performances). Rush Tickets: half-price rush tickets are available one hour before each show. Student Discounts: a limited number of $15 student tickets are available online using promo code “MARCH15”. Limit 2 tickets per student; must present a valid student ID for each ticket. Running time: 2 hours and 50 minutes.

Post-Show Discussions.

Free post-show discussions are offered after every performance in the Subscription Season. Steppenwolf is located near all forms of public transportation and is wheelchair accessible. Street and lot parking are available. Performances featuring American Sign Language interpretation, open captioning and audio description are offered during the run of each play. Assistive listening devices and large-print programs are available for every performance.

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