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A Living History Lesson: ‘The March’ @ Steppenwolf Theatre

by Michael Brosilow

In the grand tradition of historical reenactment, comes a stirring epic from the same team that brought The Grapes of Wrath to Broadway in the early 90’s. Steppenwolf company member Frank Galati adapted and directed E.L. Doctorow’s 2006 PEN/Faulkner award-winning novel about Sherman’s destructive march across the Confederate South. Like so many novels, movies and plays about the Civil War, The March is less about the battlefields and more about the displacement of so many Southern Americans as the Confederacy folded. This character driven play is more narrative than revelatory, relying on the twenty-eight person cast to tell the real stories of people not recorded in your history books.

The cast is a nice mixture of Steppenwolf company members and featured Chicago actors. Harry Groener depicts General William Tecumseh Sherman with the poise and dignity befitting this historical figure. Leading the female cast is Carrie Coon as Emily Thompson, a Southern belle with few options but to follow the Union Army as a nurse. Miss Coon’s impressive Southern drawl is enough to make even the smallest line seem poetic, and it’s often what her character is expressing that truly shows the sadness of an expiring way of life. Ian Barford and Stephen Louis Grush portray rebel turncoats moving back and forth between sides as a means of survival. Both actors effortlessly bring the gritty reality of frontline battle to the stage in moments of bittersweet comedy and Shakespearean tragedy.

Bringing the Civil War into a city theatre certainly can’t be an easy thing. Under the direction of Frank Galati, scenic designer James Schuette keeps the audience alert with the use of cannon fire, gun shots, soothing banjo music and lighting tricks. Instantly The March begins to unfold as we are cadenced in with rhythmic boot stomping, which has an oddly unsettling effect. The authentic costumes of the Civil War are recreated by Virgil C. Johnson and reflect the budget of the Steppenwolf.

Think of this play as the other side of Gone with the Wind. This is the story of those who in the end are made more dimensional by what they must do to survive. Perhaps this is not the most comprehensive look at Sherman’s march, but through Doctorow’s text, which blends recorded history with fictional oral histories, we are given a cross-section of life as it’s remembered, and what it was really like to live during that tumultuous period.

The March runs through June 10th, in the Downstairs Theatre at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Tickets run from $20 to $55 and can be purchased online or in person. The Steppenwolf Theatre is located  at 1650 N Halsted Street in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. $20 tickets are available on the day of performance at 11 am. Half-price rush tickets are available one hour prior to curtain in person only.