By Drea DiCarlo
Atlanta Burning, Sherman’s Shadow is staged in the cozy basement venue of Westport Coffee House. As the house opens and patrons enter the space, they are greeted by live banjo music, grounding the story aesthetically in a time and place (old, Southern Dixie). The set is minimal: A Union flag hangs on the wall, chairs, a table scattered with maps and documents with a bottle of bourbon and two glasses.
The play begins in the present day, with the playwright introducing himself as the descendant of Civil War Union General William Sherman and as the actor who will be playing Sherman. Then it transitions into the story itself which takes place in the days preceding the siege of Atlanta in the fall of 1864. In an occupied home the General banters with his assistant, an army major, and periodically addresses the audience as if they are a group of new recruits.
Written as one fluid scene, the show weaves historical events of the war that happen in “real” time with past events in the war and in Sherman’s life. There are long drawn out moments, like Sherman’s reminiscing about his time as young soldier in pre-Confederate Georgia, as well as the passage of days denoted by reports delivered by our banjo player from earlier, dressed as Union soldier. Overall, though, the pacing is a little monotonous.
Ultimately the show is more about Sherman himself than any of the events he faces. It paints a psychological portrait of the man in the calm before the storm, a storm that he is responsible for. There’s a tension that comes off Sherman, characterized by the cigar that he plays with throughout the show, occasionally lighting matches for, but never actually lighting the thing itself. In some ways, Sherman feels like the only real character in the show. The others serve to move the timeline along and to provide a vehicle for Sherman to unpack his own morality and justify his wartime decisions.
Sherman is a compelling storyteller, characterized as a man of the people, well-read, war toughened, funny in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. The show is dialogue-heavy and, especially with the acoustics in the venue, is at times difficult to hear. There are places where it drags and I think it might be helped along by the inclusion of the banjo music from the beginning; unfortunately, the live music was only a pre-show feature. If you’re interested in oral storytelling or American history, you won’t want to miss this show.