The March at Steppenwolf: His truth goes marching on.
The March at Steppenwolf: His truth goes marching on. Credit: Michael Brosilow

Family legend has it that my Irish-born great-great-grandfather fought on the Union side during the Civil War and was at the siege of Vicksburg. We’ve never confirmed that story. But if he was one of the boys in blue, he maintained an ironic sense of humor about it, naming his son Jefferson Davis Norris after the president of the Confederate States of America.

The mutability of identity in wartime is at the heart of E.L. Doctorow’s 2005 novel The March, which can now be seen in a sprawling, intriguing—and frustrating—Steppenwolf Theatre Company production adapted and directed by Frank Galati. Galati has aimed high in staging Doctorow’s multifaceted look at General William Tecumseh Sherman’s devastating “march to the sea.” But in the end he’s created a show where panoply trumps personality. Few of his 26 cast members get enough stage time to register as anything more than uniforms. Unlike the determined general himself, Galati lacks a steely commitment here. He’s failed to make the hard decisions about which of Doctorow’s many intertwined stories should drive the narrative and which should be abandoned by the wayside.

The most interesting character onstage is Arly, a Confederate soldier whom we first meet in the brig, where he’s landed for falling asleep on duty. There he befriends young Will, a would-be deserter. The two change uniforms and sides as the situation and survival demand—which, for all I know, may’ve been my great-great-granddad’s gambit as well. Ian Barford, who’s played so many memorable mensches adrift in aimless lives, nails Arly’s gleeful pursuit of adventure. “On the march is a new way to live,” he tells quiet, innocent Will—who, in Stephen Louis Grush’s sensitive portrayal, makes a fine foil. They soon become ambulance drivers for the Union.

But they’re not the only ones in disguise.

A young, half-white former slave named Pearl (played with forthright charm by Shannon Matesky) assumes the identity of a drummer boy until her first period unmasks her. Later she has to decide if she should pass for white with Stephen, her newfound Union soldier beau, or stay true to the memory of her dead black mother, whose rape by the master resulted in Pearl’s birth.

Even Sherman himself has to struggle against his lingering sense of himself as a loon—the crazy “Uncle Billy” who had a near nervous breakdown during the early years of the war—in order to finish the bloody business at hand. Sherman’s greatest fear is that a failure to crush the Confederacy completely will lead to years of guerrilla warfare; if he has to despoil the southern civilian population in order to avoid that, so be it. Harry Groener delivers Pattonesque monologues as Sherman, laying out his justifications for total warfare while acknowledging that governance is a whole lot harder to pull off—as the U.S. has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meshing historical and imaginary figures is, of course, a Doctorow trademark. But where Ragtime, for instance, makes room for some playful syncopation in the juxtapositions, The March unfolds in double-quick time. James Vincent Meredith’s flirtatious Coalhouse Walker disappears in the second act, along with Alana Arenas’s enchanting Wilma, his paramour. (Yes, they’re the parents of Ragtime‘s rebellious musician, Coalhouse Walker Jr.) Other potentially fascinating characters such as Phillip James Brannon’s Calvin—an elegant free man of color who works as the skillful aide to a white war photographer—don’t get the chance to resonate fully.

Those seeking hints of contemporary divides between north and south, blue states and red, can certainly find them here—particularly in Pearl and Stephen’s meditation on how long it will take for America’s racial divide to be healed. (Their wildly optimistic estimate: 100 years.) But that doesn’t make up for the frustrating fact that Galati never makes clear why some of the characters—most notably Barford’s Arly—undergo 180-degree transformations. Much of the second act builds toward Arly’s metamorphosis from a shrewd operator worthy of Brecht’s Mother Courage to an avenging son of the south. In the fog of the onstage war, we never clearly see the moment when Arly decides to risk it all for his notions of honor.

Much of the dialogue and plot of Galati’s The March are true to Doctorow’s book, but the emotional arc flattens out as it winds down. As great-great-granddad’s little joke demonstrates, the most significant events in history come to fullest life in the presence of ironic and telling details.