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Steppenwolf offers a flawless, faithful 'Grapes of Wrath'

By Hedy Weiss
Theater Critic, Chicago Sun-Times
September 19, 1988

Fire, water, earth and the ferociously resilient human spirit. These are the elemental and combustible ingredients with which John Steinbeck built his great novel of social protest, The Grapes of Wrath. They are also the building blocks of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's breathtaking and emotionally wrenching stage version of the 1939 classic, which received its world premiere this weekend at the Royal-George Theatre.

Any analysis of the individual components of this triumphant production will fail to suggest its over-all grandeur and nobility. I could say, for example, that Frank Galati's adaptation and direction is utterly faithful to its source— that it is not only uncompromising, but devoid of sentimentality, and that it is flawless in the way it sweeps us into the lives of the characters, and their time, without a wasted word or motion.

But that would give you no sense of the way Galati has seamlessly threaded this 3-1/2 hour epic together, the way he has played with silence, and woven Michael Smith's music through the action as if it were a long, silky band of highway, or the way he has stretched and compressed time, or made the stage move as if it were a movie screen, or turned that famous truck into a giant, heaving beast of burden. Nor would it suggest the way he has collaborated with his amazing designer, Kevin Rigdon, to create the feel of barren, Dust Bowl dryness and radiant star-studded desert skies, the warmth of an open campfire and the terror of a probing flashlight, or the pure joy of splashing in a cool river and the horror of drowning in a raging storm.

Of course it is Steinbeck's riveting story that is at the heart of this triumph, and Galati pays loving tribute to the writer in a single brilliant gesture— the illumination of a page from the manuscript that coincides with the play's tragic final scene. It's an important tribute, because Steinbeck's tale of the grueling and devastating westward trek of the Joad family in the 1930s— and of their traumatic transformation from land-worshipping Oklahoma farmers to hideously exploited migrant fruit pickers in California— not only exposed the many social ills of America's Depression era, but documented all of the serious problems that continue to plague society. And they are problems that not even Ma Joad's creed of survival could transcend.

The cast of 41 actors and musicians in this production— many performing with Steppenwolf for the first time— has become a perfectly unified force. With their ashen faces, and their dry, flat voices that seem to swallow all emotion, they appear to be lifted out of photographs by Dorothea Lange.

Gary Sinise's restrained, imploding portrayal of Tom Joad— the eldest son, who has the innate fire of a rebel in him— is lyrical and strong, and most interestingly, totally free of heroics. But it's Terry Kinney who has the plum role as Jim Casy, the charismatic preacher-turned-labor organizer. He is brilliant and funny as this derelict angel, a shabby, self-mocking visionary with a revolutionary turn of mind.

Lois Smith's Ma Joad is also a marvel— from the heart-exploding moment when she freezes in place at the first sight of her son, Tom, newly released from prison, to the moment she climbs out of the truck, looking half-dead, and tells us she has been sleeping beside a corpse all day. But Smith is matched by Tom Irwin as the passionate narrator, and Nathan Davis as the indomitable Grampa, and Jim True as the live-wire Al, and John C. Reilly as the heart-wrenching retarded brother Noah, and Ramsay Midwood as the labor agitator, and by Yvonne Suhor as the child bride whose heroic final gesture can only leave you speechless and in awe.

A cry for social justice and compassion, and a hymn to the endurance of the common man, Steppenwolf's production of The Grapes of Wrath is also a celebration of theater as a place where great stories must be re-enacted. The play is here for only a limited run. But it would be an unpardonable sin if it did not receive an extended life, both in this country and abroad.

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