Steppenwolf's "The March"

“The March” is about war, but Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel doesn’t feel like a battle.

Gunshots ring out a few times, and bodies spill blood on the Steppenwolf Theatre’s stage. But this Civil War drama is more about the the moments of fearful anxiety before the bullets fly, and the quiet moments of grief and shock that happen after warfare takes its devastating toll. The action unfolds at a stately pace — sometimes too stately — but it’s fitting tempo for the play’s elegiac tone. Slowly but surely, it builds in power and beauty.

Doctorow’s book follows Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman as he led Union soldiers on a bloody, destructive march through the Confederate South in 1864 and 1865. With a sprawling cast of characters and constantly shifting events, it isn’t the easiest material to adapt into a stage drama. Galati, who is also directing this world premiere, shrewdly keeps most of the scenes small and intimate, focusing on a few characters at a time, even though he has an ensemble of 26 actors at his disposal.

And a great ensemble it is, with especially vivid performances by Ian Barford, Phillip James Brannon and Shannon Matesky as people on the fringes of the bloody drama, who are striving to stay alive and hoping for a better world after the war’s end. Holding forth with Shakespearean flair, Henry Groener plays the most famous figure in the story, Sherman, but he seems like just another human being caught up in an inexorable tragedy.

“The March” subtly brings history to life on the stage, and the old feels both authentic and as relevant as ever.

“The March” continues through June 10 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. For tickets and details, call 312-335-1650 or see www.steppenwolf.org.

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