Jerre Dye and Namir Smallwood Credit: Claire Demos

Back in 1988, Steppenwolf Theatre premiered an expensive, AT&T-sponsored stage version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, adapted and directed by Frank Galati. In my review I argued that the show sabotaged itself, mainly through the absurd juxtaposition of a socialist novel with megacorporate funding, but also by forcing the audience 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.”

I may have got that last part about the gimmicks wrong.

As directed by Erica Weiss, the Gift Theatre’s new production of the Galati Grapes is all but free of gewgaws. Its most elaborate coup de theatre is an onstage catwalk that adds an upper level—and precious square footage—to the Gift’s narrow playing area. There’s no river, no rain, no flames, and the car that locomoted around Steppenwolf’s original is represented here by a flatbed resting on wheels that never turn. We don’t have to sit and stew while the tech kicks in. And yet this staging is as ponderous as its expensive forebearer. A certain amount of earnest tedium seems to be built into the script.

Not that the tedium is unrelieved—or uncompensated either. As you probably remember from your high school English class, Steinbeck’s 1939 novel is a powerful piece of politically progressive melodrama about the Joads, a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers who lose their 40-acre farm to the bank when dust-bowl storms render it unarable. Leaflets promising plentiful work convince them to load up their old Hudson and head down Route 66 to California. The trip pretty near destroys them.

One Joad, Tom, takes his own, personal journey even as he accompanies the others on theirs. Merciless exploiters and vicious enforcers, fiery unionizers and brief glimpses of a better way combine to radicalize Tom, both socially and spiritually.
The saga is as ennobling as it is agonizing. It’s also full of contemporary resonances. You can’t watch the Joads get turned from self-sufficient farmers into despised “migrants” without thinking of bans on Muslims and walls along the Rio Grande. You can’t listen to talk about “one fella with a million acres” amid a million others with none without thinking about the wealth gap. And if you can sit through the passages about foreclosed family homes without thinking of the mortgage crisis, then just take an intermission-time stroll down to the realty office a block from the theater, where the listings posted in the window include a couple for “bank-owned” condos.

Weiss and the Gift seize on these connections across time, emphasizing them with a cast whose diversity is clearly meant to transcend historical ethnic categories and send the message that it’s not only Okies who get treated like Okies. Black actors (Namir Smallwood and Kona N. Burks) play Tom Joad and Ma Joad, for example, while Pa Joad is played by a white one (Paul D’Addario). The rest of the family is multicultural, as well—and variously abled, with legally blind Jay Worthington in the role of Uncle John Joad. A Joad brother, Al, is depicted as gay, a possibility neither Steinbeck nor Galati seems to have contemplated, since it makes for some awkward dialogue.

All of this is good-hearted, forward-looking, and very much in sync with Tom’s famous realization that “a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul.” But Weiss makes her point at the expense of coherence.

It seems to me that she could’ve gone with a conventionally faithful treatment of the story, relying on her audiences to draw the necessary inferences. Or she might’ve risked breaking free of Steinbeck’s Depression-era context so as to make a more aggressively universal statement. As it happens, her production does neither by trying to do both. The show is at once authentic and figurative, both bound by time and untethered. Which leads to a weird sort of double-mindedness where you get the point yet wonder all the same why nobody seems to notice that Tom Joad is black, much less treat him according to racial practices standard for the time in the southwestern U.S. That plus the earnest-tedium problem leaves me waiting still for a Grapes that works.  v