Frank Galati’s new adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling novel about Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas in the waning days of the Civil War is admirably efficient, managing to include most of the author’s many central characters and story lines. The piece stays true to Doctorow’s themes about the war’s role in defining and redefining the American idea.
If anything, Galati’s adaptation might be too loyal to Doctorow’s work. A vast majority of the dialogue is taken directly from the pages of the 2005 novel, and scenes often play out as discretely as chapters in the book. Where you want more theatrical juxtaposition and imagination, there’s something pageant-like about the procession of scenes with supertitles providing dates and settings. And though Steppenwolf provides a large cast of 26 gifted actors, we rarely see more than a few of them onstage at once. One of Doctorow’s major characters, Army doctor Wrede Sartorius (Philip R. Smith), describes the march as a living, breathing organism, miles long and wide, with its soldiers and followers serving as cells. That sense of overwhelming amplitude is missing in this version, in which Galati too often relies on Doctorow’s words to stand in for action.
Still, the adapter-director is quite successful at getting into the minds of Doctorow’s foremost characters. Harry Groener’s Sherman is convincingly brilliant, conflicted and mildly unstable, while Ian Barford tears up the stage as unbalanced Confederate opportunist Arly Wilcox. A luminous Shannon Matesky gets the show’s breakout role, terrifically inhabiting “white Negro” Pearl Jameson’s own tentative march toward freedom.