John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" is an American Odyssey, a journey through unending trials to reach safe haven. As a chronicle of the Great Depression, it touched every raw nerve that national trauma uncovered, but it also portrayed men and women whose indomitable spirit helped them conquer economic hazards and emotional despair.
It would be nice to report that the Steppenwolf Company of Chicago's adaptation of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," which opened last night, transfers the energy and power of the novel to the stage. The adaptation itself manages to condense the novel intelligently, but the production almost never conveys the heroic spirit of Steinbeck's characters or his prose.
Instead we watch a series of anecdotes about the Joad family and their mishaps as they leave the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to find the Promised Land of California. Seldom do the stage pictures convey the agony of those familiar photographs of Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange.
The key scenes are there, sometimes acted with intensity but more often not. Perhaps to avoid comparisons with the John Ford film, the acting seems deliberately low-key. You hear some of the speeches you remember from the book or the film, you sense the beauty and force of the writing, but you're also aware of the disparity between the words and the weight the actors give them.
One scene that could not have been included in the film is that in which the young mother whose child was stillborn agrees to breast-feed an old man who has not eaten in three days. This image, a harrowing moment of affirmation, ends the play, but it is performed with so little artistry that the audience didn't seem to know the play was over until the lights stayed out a long time.
Yes, I know. This is the second day in a row I'm complaining about actors bungling what ought to be a life-affirming moment. Since I normally complain about plays that appear to have no content at all, I should be grateful that there are plays that at least acknowledge that theatergoing should be a life-affirming experience and not niggle over details.
In this case because the moment does not seem transcendent, it comes across as mere sensationalism, a woman exposing her breast and a broken man raising himself toward it as the lights go out.
Similarly, a lot of the high points of the evening have to do with technical novelties - fires on the stage floor, a rainstorm, a pool deep enough for an actor to dive into naked.
There are stirring moments - Francis Guinan's monologue as the disillusioned Okie recounting the horrors he has seen in California; Lois Smith, as Ma Joad, mustering the strength to conceal her dead mother from the highway patrol - and there are beautiful performances, Smith's, Jeff Perry as her half-wit son, James Noah as the strong Uncle John. Terry Kinney is a mildly rascally Preacher.
Gary Sinise, the guiding spirit of Steppenwolf, plays Tom Joad as a tight-lipped, understated hero, so stoic nothing seems to move either him or us. Kevin Rigdon's simple sets and his painterly lighting evoke the period well, as do Erin Quigley's costumes (though maybe someone should take them out to the alley and muss them up a bit).
There is something heartening about seeing such a large, deeply committed company engaged in serious work, but what they achieve is something far below Steinbeck's galvanizing vision.
There are moving moments, shafts of compassion, a sense of horrified empathic outrage that embody or even symbolizes perhaps the special gift of the Steppenwolf Theater Company's quietly spectacular adaptation of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," which opened on Broadway last night at the Cort Theater.
Its simple message that homelessness and poverty are evil but no sin still strikes a shocked response in the very proper radical-guilt of Broadway plush-sitters, while the remoteness of the plight of migrant farmworkers half-a-century ago cuts it down to the serviceable size of art rather than life.
The 1939 novel of the migration of the "Okies" from their bank-foreclosed farms in the Dust Bowl to the hopeful vineyards of California and despair, shot like a rocket through the social consciousness of an America turgidly stirring from the worst of the Great Depression.
A year later, with a screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, "The Grapes of Wrath" was made into a remarkable movie (cinematography by Gregg Toland) by John Ford, which became an instant movie classic and passed into the permanent American consciousness.
There are those who regard the Ford movie as a far more important and enduring work of art than the original Steinbeck novel, and, I suspect, those are the ones who may find this stage adaptation, for all its incidental virtues, the least satisfying.
It is not impossible to adapt a novel to the stage without using it as the basis for music theater, but it's pretty damn difficult.
The rhythms, pace and images of a novel can all be more faithfully adapted to the screen than to the stage - and this has been demonstrated time, time and time again. Agreed, certain novels, such as the wildly theatrical and structurally episodic "Nicholas Nickleby" managed to set the stage on fire, and I imagine one or two other Victorian spectaculars, with at least as much action as thought, might serve a similar term.
On the other hand, Steinbeck was always interested in the theater, and the only three plays he actually had a hand in - notably "Of Mice and Men" written in collaboration with George S. Kaufman - were taken from his novels. So the adaptor here, Frank Galati, has ample precedent.
From the moment this adaptation starts with Steinbeck's chilling comment: "The dawn came, but no day" we seem to sense the novel is in safe hands, although for lovers of the movie (and Public Television alone must have made us a quorum) the poetic images of the movie are forever missing.
Take the incident of Ma Joad's trinkets and photos. The Joad family forced off their by now barren land are moving West, accompanied by the whole family, including the eldest son, Tom, who has just been paroled from the state penitentiary after four years for killing a guy in a fight.
Now it's off to the promised land. But before they leave they must clear up their old life. In the novel, Ma Joad leafing through old letters, photos and stuff is lightly mentioned - and in this stage adaptation it passes almost unnoticed, and indeed would, were you not to know what you were noticing.
In the movie, Ford and Toland had Jane Darwell going through a ritual of release from her past that stood for the whole movie up to that point - a benchmark statement in the movie's arc from understandable despair to incredible, enduring optimism. The play has nothing of that - nor did the over-wordy, just-plain-folks novel.
Galati has directed his peasant odyssey perhaps rather too slowly at first. One longs for more rhythm, more emphasis on some aspects, less on others.
But his use of the battered old truck as something like Mother Courage's wagon is an inspired choice, and sometimes he uses simple stage effects - swimming in the watering hole or the flood at the camp - with real brilliance.
He is helped every inch of the way by the Steppenwolf ensemble, perhaps now the only true ensemble left in the English-speaking theater, for companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company or Britain's National Theater are recruited season by season. The Steppenwolf remain a pack.
With Kevin Rigdon's consistently resourceful and evocative scenery and lighting, and Erin Quigley's costumes, not to mention the haunting design by Rob Milburn and the music composed and directed by Michael Smith, the evening is doused and bathed in the before-glow of the right atmosphere.
But it is still probably the actors who carry the night. Of course, they have no wish to be compared with their Hollywood predecessors of half a century ago, but in the inevitable minds of many they must be.
Tom Joad is not simply Tom Joad, an all-American hero from a play of American social consciousness, he is equally Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad.
It is to Gary Sinise's undying credit that without the least effort on his part, he slices Fonda from the play - and remarkably so, except perhaps in one case, do all the others.
Sinise is terrific, the all-American hero unwittingly on the wrong side of wrong laws, a man of humor, compassion, love and action. Too true to be good, and yet still not Fonda, the same character painted by a different painter.
If anything Lois Smith - tautly unsentimental - seems preferable to me than the rather overripe Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, and Sally Murphy as the Rose of Sharon (who is given the ending written by Steinbeck and rejected by Ford, some say for reasons of artistic taste, others suggesting the censorship of the front office) is touching without ever being sweet.
The one film character who still haunts the stage like a ghost is John Carradine's Jim Casy, the defrocked, defrocking preacher. And this has nothing to do with Terry Kinney's absolutely excellent portrayal of the role. But somehow Carradine's wolf grin and immortal sadness remain hanging in this story's branches.
This is, overall, a thrilling theatrical achievement that gets its power from the still sharp relevance of its human message - although perhaps you should give your money to the poor rather than buy theater tickets - and its entertainment quality from the performance by an ensemble you should walk miles to see.
A great piece of American theater? Don't you believe it. It's decent shaped hokum. Take it for what it is: learn and enjoy.
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.