Can the flavor and mood of an epic novel - particularly a prosy expos'e - be successfully translated to the stage? The Steppenwolf Theatre Company wrestled with this question in its just-concluded run of director Frank Galati's ambitious adaptation of John Steinbeck's 1939 novel of the dust-bowl era, ``The Grapes of Wrath.''
For this production the company needed to move out of its regular home and into the Royal-George to accommodate its cast of 41 players - the largest undertaking in Steppenwolf's 12-year history.
If this dramatized version of an American classic was neither as detailed nor as lengthy as the Royal Shakespeare Company's eight-hour staging of the Dickens tome ``Nicholas Nickleby,'' it was nevertheless loftily conceived and, for the most part, impressively executed.
Making characters live
The main challenge in staging the novel is to make all the characters come caringly to life - something Steinbeck was not so successful at achieving in the heat of his fervor to expose a failure of conscience in the country that proclaimed itself the land of hope and opportunity.
The scenario follows the Joad family, forced to leave its foreclosed Oklahoma farm, on the harrowing journey west to California, and then on an increasingly desperate tour of squalid work camps.
By placing the action on a spare weathered-wood setting, Mr. Galati forced his audience to use its powers of imagination to bring the actual locales to life. The back wall did have doors that opened to suggest tents, storefronts, even boxcar facings, but the unit set itself never changed.
In such a pared-down context, dialogue replaced action. And we had to be told about so many things that were crucial to the story's resolution that this ``Grapes of Wrath'' became long-winded.
Yet Galati knows when collective patience is apt to wear thin, or when an audience may let its attention wander, and at those points in the play he spiced things up with action. The Joads' rickety truck got a lot of mileage on one small stage.
Galati also relied on composer/balladeer Michael Smith's original songs, written in the style of the period and sung by various members of the company, both individually and collectively.
For the sake of spectacle, designer Kevin Rigdon devised a closable trench at the front of the stage. This hid a pool of water that masqueraded as the Colorado River (in which the Joad men splashed around - several in their underclothes, one naked); as the stream the cast fords near show's end; and as a basin for the curtains of water that represented torrential downpours during the play. Needless to say, this was not a production for which front-row seats were desirable.
Galati's actors scored their points with small gestures and brief interactions that planted seeds of truth which grew throughout the evening to illuminate the agonized, yet paradoxically hopeful, ending.
Nevertheless, the earnest, anti-sentimental tone of the dramatization undercut genuine depth of characterization, and the performers more often than not were unable to create a needed subtext of complexity.
In particular, Ma Joad, though sturdily played by Lois Smith (not a regular member of Steppenwolf), did not fully communicate the reserves of warmth under a crusty exterior that could have made her performance veritably epic.
At least Gary Sinise endowed Tom Joad with a quiet, smoldering stoicism, which kept his performance vital throughout the play.
And while it is impossible to individually cite all the principal players, let alone all 41 in the cast, suffice it to say that, for this first-time Steppenwolf visitor, the depth of quality apparent in the company was impressive.