New Era for 'Grapes of Wrath'
By Frank Rich, New York Times, March 23, 1990
It's not just because audiences must step around homeless people to get to the theater that the time is right for the Steppenwolf Theater Company's majestic adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath."
When John Steinbeck wrote his novel about dispossessed Okies heading west in search of the promised land of California, he was also writing about a nation in search of itself. After a decade of dog-eat-dog boom and another of Depression, Steinbeck wondered what credo the survivors could still believe in. Fifty years later - after another 1920's-style orgy of greed and with many bills yet to be paid - Americans are once more uncertain in their faith. While an all-night party celebrating democracy is being uncorked around the world, the vast inequities of our own democracy leave some Americans wondering whether they deserve to be invited.
The production at the Cort, an epic achievement for the director, Frank Galati, and the Chicago theater ensemble at his disposal, makes Steinbeck live for a new generation not by updating his book but by digging into its timeless heart. On the surface, "The Grapes of Wrath" is one of the worst great novels ever written. The characters are perishable W.P.A.-mural archetypes incapable of introspection, the dialogue is at times cloyingly folksy and the drama is scant. In any ordinary sense, there's no "play" here (and without Henry Fonda's presence, a sweetened screenplay and Gregg Toland's spectacular on-site cinematography, there wouldn't have been a movie, either). But Steinbeck wasn't trying to be Dickens or Hugo or Dreiser. Without embracing either a jingoist's flag or a Marxist's ideology, he was simply trying to unearth and replenish the soul holding a country together. That's the simple, important drama that Steppenwolf, with incredibly sophisticated theatrical technique, brings to the stage.
To be sure, Mr. Galati, as adapter, takes the audience through the narrative of the Joad family's travails by Hudson Super Six truck - a winding trail on Route 66 blighted by abject poverty, deaths, desertions, labor violence, natural disasters. But the evening's dialogue scenes are few and brief, the lines are reduced to a laconic minimum and the many people are defined by their faces and tones of voice rather than by psychological revelations.
What one finds in place of conventional dramatic elements - and in place of the documentary photography possible only on film - is pure theater as executed by a company and director that could not be more temperamentally suited to their task. As Steppenwolf demonstrated in "True West," "Orphans" and "Balm in Gilead" - all titles that could serve for "The Grapes of Wrath" - it is an ensemble that believes in what Steinbeck does: the power of brawny, visceral art, the importance of community, the existence of an indigenous American spirit that resides in inarticulate ordinary people, the spiritual resonance of American music and the heroism of the righteous outlaw. As played by Gary Sinise and Terry Kinney, Tom Joad and the lapsed preacher, Jim Casy - the Steinbeck characters who leave civilization to battle against injustice -are the forefathers of the rock-and-roll rebels in Steppenwolf productions by Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson just as they are heirs to Huck and Jim. They get their hands dirty in the fight for right.
The audience meets Tom and Casy in the parched dust bowl, where they are introduced by the evening's first haunting mating of sight and sound: a fiddler in a lonely spotlight runs a bow across a handsaw, filling the antique Broadway house with the thin, plaintive wail of the barren plains. When the lights come up, the audience finds a set - a deep, barnlike shell of weathered wood, brilliantly designed and lighted by Kevin Rigdon - that will contain the entire event. Aside from the occasional descending wall or sign, the only major piece of scenery is the Joads' mobile truck, piled high with kitchen utensils, bundles of clothes and plucky humanity.
What follows is a stream of tableaux whose mythic power lies in their distillation to vibrant essentials. One's worst fear about a "Grapes of Wrath" adaptation - that it will be a patchwork quilt of sugar-coated Americana - is never realized. Mr. Galati, a director of exquisite taste, strips away sentimentality and cheap optimism. If he has an esthetic model, it is Peter Brook, not "The Waltons." His "Grapes" looks a lot like the Brook "Carmen," for its atmosphere is created with the basic elements of earth, water, fire and air. Even so, Mr. Galati and Mr. Rigdon do not regard homespun simplicity as a license for improvisatory amateurism. Elegance may seem an odd word to apply to "The Grapes of Wrath," but it fits this one. While a stage production cannot compete with the photography of Walker Evans or Pare Lorentz, it can emulate the rigorous, more abstract painterly imagery of Edward Hopper or Thomas Hart Benton or Georgia O'Keeffe.
Mr. Galati conveys the loneliness of the open road with headlights burning into an inky night, or with the rotating of the truck under a starry sky to reveal each isolated conversation of its inhabitants. Campfires frequently dot the stage - the ravaged face of Mr. Kinney's itinerant preacher is made to be illuminated by lantern glow -and a sharp duel of flashlights dramatizes the violence of strikebreaking thugs. Equally astringent and evocative is Michael Smith's score, which echoes Woody Guthrie and heartland musical forms and is played by a migrant band on such instruments as harmonica, jew's-harp and banjo. Sometimes salted with descriptive lyrics from Steinbeck, the music becomes the thread that loosely binds a scattered society.
Though trimmed since its premiere in Chicago in 1988, Act I of "The Grapes of Wrath" still requires perseverance. Mr. Galati, like Steinbeck, demands that the audience sink into a jerky, episodic journey rather than be propelled by the momentum of character or story. Act II pays off with the flood sequence - spectacularly realized here with a curtain of rain pouring down on men shoveling for their lives - and in remarkably fresh realizations of some of the novel's most familiar scenes. When Ma Joad - in the transcendent form of the flinty, silver-haired Lois Smith - delivers her paean to the people's ability to "go on," it isn't the inspirational epilogue that won Jane Darwell an Oscar but a no-nonsense, conversational reiteration of unshakable pragmatism. When Mr. Sinise leaves his already disintegrated family to join a radical underground, his "I'll be all around in the dark" soliloquy is not Fonda's Lincolnesque address but a plain-spoken statement of bedrock conviction.
Like the superb Miss Smith, Mr. Sinise and Mr. Kinney, the other good actors in this large cast never raise their voices. Such performers as Jeff Perry (Noah Joad) and Robert Breuler (Pa Joad) slip seamlessly into folkloric roles that are permanent fixtures in our landscape. They become what Steinbeck believed his people to be - part of a communal soul that will save America from cruelty and selfishness when other gods, secular and religious, have failed.
Can they make us believe, too? The evening concludes with the coda the movie omitted, in which the Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon (Sally Murphy), her husband gone and her baby just born dead, offers to breast feed a starving black man (Lex Monson) in a deserted barn. As acted and staged, in a near-hush and visually adrift on the full, lonely expanse of the wooden stage, the tableau is religious theater in the simplest sense. There is no pious sermon - just a humble, selfless act of charity crystallized into a biblical image, executed by living-and-breathing actors, streaked with nocturnal shadows and scented by the gentle weeping of a fiddle string.
Some of the audience seemed to be weeping, too, and not out of sadness, I think. The Steppenwolf "Grapes of Wrath" is true to Steinbeck because it leaves one feeling that the generosity of spirit that he saw in a brutal country is not so much lost as waiting once more to be found.