Based on the Novel by John Steinbeck
Adapted by Frank Galati
Directed by Erica Weiss
Produced by The Gift Theatre, Chicago
Route 66 as a Place of Myth
In a production in Jefferson Park’s storefront Gift Theatre, Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s renowned novel is zoomed in on more closely than ever, with the tiny playing space leaving room for little more than an intense examination of the characters played by a nineteen-member cast. The backdrop resembles something from a community theatre production, but by the end of the play, it seems possible that that was the point, for while the acting is stellar, the combination of Galati’s script and Erika Weiss’s direction take The Grapes of Wrath into the realm of pure mythology. It’s really quite an amazing thing to watch.
The story concerns the Joads, a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers who have been evicted from their land during the Dust Bowl, and head to California in hopes of finding greener pastures. It’s like a rural version of The Jungle, since they get exploited in one way after another until belatedly embracing the promising future of socialism. Tom Joad (Namir Smallwood) is freshly released from prison for killing a man in self-defense and arrives home just in time to break parole by climbing aboard the family’s modified jalopy. Along the way, he brings Jim Casy (Jerre Dye), a former preacher who had an attack of conscience, and decided to stop using a religion he never believed in as a means of seducing women. Jim joins a company that already includes Tom’s steadfast mother (Kona N. Burks) and honest father (Paul D’Addario), religious paternal grandma (Alexandra Main) and domineering grandpa (Art Fox), guilt-ridden uncle John (Jay Worthington), mentally abnormal older brother, Noah (Michael Turrentine), randy and mechanically skilled younger brother, Al (Lane Flores), pregnant sister Rose of Sharon (Emily Marso), and her teenage husband, Connie (Tim Martin), and two younger siblings. They figure their journey is so desperate already, adding one more person won’t make it any worse.
Most Chicago theatre-goers know that Frank Galati’s adaptation was one of the major contributors to Steppenwolf’s national reputation, and that he recently returned to Steinbeck with last year’s East of Eden. His handling of the story is widely praised for having conveyed a highly symbolic work with clarion morality of a kind not commonly found in our cynical age. However, an examination of the source novel finds that Galati achieved his vision by glossing over some of Steinbeck’s nuance. In the book’s third-person narration, the Joads are not always spoken of in positive terms; Steinbeck frequently states that the women are staying silent because the men won’t tolerate their input, and that the family, like most of the others in the area, regularly engages in violence and enables each other’s criminality. He also wrote short chapters about Oklahoma generally in between longer chapters about the Joads, in which he pointed out the hypocrisy of people who bragged of massacring Trail of Tears tribes to gain their land (in what was then the recent past) complaining about being litigated and harassed off of it. Notably, Steinbeck also introduces grandma by explicitly saying that her religion is merely an excuse to be just as much of a bully as her savage husband, but Alexandra Main’s performances suggests nothing other than a sweet, slightly daft old churchlady.
Galati only gives passing reference to the toxicity of settler culture, and in the process of making the Joads into more innocent victims, he also makes them more ignorant. In the book, before the family’s journey even starts, Tom and Ma discuss whether the car is capable of climbing the Rockies, and the possibility that the advertisements they’ve seen for crop-pickers in California are a plot to create an overabundance of labor. In Galati’s version, it takes a week of travel for them to wonder whether they’ll be crossing any hills, and they never suspect that they might be walking into a scam until a random passerby tells them they are. Ma is still the character who is depicted as the most heroic, and she is the first person to suggest that workers should band together to fight injustice. But in Steinbeck’s version, it seemed that her union sympathy was based on a working knowledge of agricultural economics, whereas in Galati’s it seems derived from her spirituality. Fortunately, Kona Burks’s portrayal allows Ma to be both worldly and spiritual, and a genuinely inspiring presence onstage.
Perhaps because Galati already took The Grapes of Wrath half-way into an American mythos, Weiss decided to go all the way. Without changing the text, she’s decided to make the Joads a mixed-race family. As a result, a decade after the KKK used bi-planes to bomb and strafe the black neighborhood of Tulsa, not even the rudest, most backwards characters comment on the Joads’ skin color, and the Joads don’t anticipate it ever creating complications. Similarly, Weiss also decided to have Uncle John be blind, although he still plans to work as a crop-picker and ditch-digger and is shown doing so, and to make a love interest whom Al considers marrying male. On one hand, you could criticize this kind of inclusivity as really being more of an erasure that ignores how bi-racial, disabled, and gay people in the time actually lived in order to shoehorn them into someone else’s story. But on the other hand, since this is already a mythic history instead of the real one, it allows the message of people uniting to support each other in the face of hardship to go beyond the narrow range of working-class whites, and encompass all forms of exploitation. Ultimately, Weiss cast actors who made it work. Smallwood’s Tom is loyal, empathetic, and truthful when he originally tells his mother that hate hasn’t poisoned him, but he becomes harsher over the course of the story as he realizes how wide a place the world is for evil to roam. He also gets wiser, and Smallwood’s “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there” speech is a masterful portrait of determination.
One of the problems any adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath has to deal with is the historical reality that, despite Steinbeck’s hope, the influx of a million extremely socially conservative people into California did not bolster progressive causes in the parts of the state they settled in. Therefore, a director can either present the play as a snapshot of a particular mindset in a particular time as an intellectual exercise, or attempt to modernize and revive its message. As with Oracle’s production of The Jungle, Weiss decided to go for the latter, and did a fine job accomplishing her vision. As unrealistic as the Joads are in some ways, we feel for them, root for them, and laugh at the cruel absurdities they encounter, because we have to do either that or despair. Each of the actors gives their character subtle human touches—a tone of voice, a slight facial tic—which flesh out what could have been played as archetypes. The ensemble cast does this as well, with each of the multiple roles they switch between, making an already large cast seem even larger. The Gift’s Grapes of Wrath is a unique experience, combining stand-out acting with a substantial re-imagining which makes the play more vital. Despite its length, it goes by very quickly, but leaves an enormous amount to think about.
Reviewed June 23, 2016
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see The Grapes of Wrath’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at The Gift Theatre, 4802 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $35; to order, call 773-283-7071. Performances are through August 14. Running time is two hours and forty minutes, with one intermission.