Steppenwolf Theatre Company

at the Royal-George Theatre

It’s not supposed to matter, but I can’t help thinking it does. Even before I enter the theater I’ve got it on my mind like a sin. Like I’m wrong not to let it go. But I can’t.

I’m just thinking that $500,000 is a lot of money.

And that AT&T is an awfully big company.

These thoughts shouldn’t matter because they’re not, strictly speaking, part of the show. They don’t relate to what’s actually onstage. To the story and its telling. They’re not about art. They’re about business. Logistics, Transportation: how you get the story to the stage. And, bus or limousine, transportation’s transportation.

Except it isn’t. Especially not in this case, the story in this case being The Grapes of Wrath–John Steinbeck’s tale of the Joad family, landless and desperate, making its way from Oklahoma to California during the dust-bowl calamity of the 1930s, hoping for a new start but finding only a more permanent landlessness and a greater despair.

The Joads traveled in a $75 sedan, jerry-rigged into a truck with a flatbed in the back. When they arrived in California, they and others like them were scattered, abused, demoralized, manipulated, and all but destroyed by big agricultural interests. This Steppenwolf adaptation, by contrast, rolled up to the Royal-George Theatre in a $500,000 company car subsidized by AT&T. Don’t tell me transportation’s just transportation.

Still, maybe it’s worth the price–in money and queasy alliances (“Steinbeck. Steppenwolf. AT&T,” say the ads. “An historic collaboration”)–to get The Grapes of Wrath done, especially done by Frank Galati, definitely one of the best directors in the city; an artist with an exquisite hand and a good, strong heart.

Sure enough, Galati has created some extraordinary moments here. Working from his own adaptation, he offers a whole series of marvelous stage pictures–pictures within pictures, actually–like those set at a Hooverville camp, where we see poor folk going about their lives, framed in doorways and bathed in the glow of Kevin Rigdon’s dusty light. There are surprises, too, like the one when Jim True–wonderfully nonchalant as Al Joad–strips down and jumps into an actual onstage river that turns out to be swimming-deep.

The actors themselves constitute pictures at times. Lois Smith, looking tough and loving–despite some apparent opening-night memory loss as Ma Joad. James Noah and the estimable Robert Breuler looking progressively more ground down, more wounded, as Uncle John and Pa Joad. Terry Kinney, quizzical as the lost preacher, Jim Casy. Cheryl Lynn Bruce, crazy sad as a self-proclaimed prophetess.

Galati punctuates various scenes with populist songs, composed by Michael Smith and performed by him with three other musicians and a chorus culled from Galati’s cast of 42. The songs are strident, funny, and effective in evoking a sense of the depth and vastness of the cataclysm Steinbeck personified in the Joads.

But the production as a whole is as shaky as the back of the Joads’ old truck. The pacing drags badly–in part because the Joads’ farm rhythms are slow; but also because we’re forced to sit there and wait to be impressed by all the gimmicks that $500,000 buys. The real river and the genuine car, the honest-to-God rainstorm and the burn-your-fingers campfires. That car, especially–moved around and spun this way and that from scene to scene–is a great and unnecessary burden. A waste of time. Before it’s done, it’s contributed to the sense of disarray, the dull aura of discombobulation that finally overtakes The Grapes of Wrath.

This show is a huge and ambitious endeavor. It would be huge and ambitious even without the rivers and the cars and the cast of 42. It would be huge and ambitious even without AT&T and $500,000. That’s because the novel itself is huge and ambitious. Also grandiose and sprawling and pissed off. Also poetic and opinionated, even mystical.

What Galati really needs in order to encompass such a book is time. Given a year for ensemble development and experimentation, I have no doubt at all that he could turn this failed epic into a masterpiece. He certainly has the talent–both within him and within the company.

Of course, that won’t happen. As part of Steppenwolf’s subscription season, it will run a few weeks and disappear and never be what it might have been. In that sense it’s as much a victim of American theater economics as of AT&T’s largess. The very best we can hope for, it seems, is a prestige production that enhances the sponsoring corporation while quietly subverting the text. Not to mention the director.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.