NEW YORK -- The first stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's classic novel 'The Grapes of Wrath' effectively dramatizes a sad chapter in American history that has never been fully resolved, just as the novel lacks a neat ending.
'The Grapes of Wrath' opened at the Cort Theater Thursday and should have a healthy run if serious drama that touches the heart still has a faithful audience. This is a production by Chicago's acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater Company and comes to Broadway via Chicago and London.
Adapter-director Frank Galati is to be congratulated for hewing closely to Steinbeck's conscience-raising novel rather than the 1940 film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel which, however fine, took some liberties to sanitize the plot.
Galati has taken the story to its symbolic and taboo-shattering conclusion rather than ending it, as did Nunnally Johnson's film version, with the flight of the migrant Joad family's eldest son, Tom, to avoid arrest and fight another day as a labor organizer.
The Joad clan of Oklahoma is a microcosmic portrait of hundreds of thousands of Midwestern and Southwestern farm families who were disinherited in the 1930s by the Great Depression and Dust Bowl droughts. Many, like the Joads, sought a new life in California where they became migrant fruit-pickers.
The Joads' progressive disillusion with the injustice of their situation is the theme of Steinbeck's powerful story, relieved only by Ma Joad's conviction that life will go on if only the determination to go on living is preserved 'no matter what happens.'
Her homespun philosophy is elaborated by a backsliding preacher friend of the family, Jim Casy, who senses the divine essence that binds all mankind in its quest for a kinder, better world.
This is the same better world that still eludes many bankrupt farm families in the Midwest and Southwest today and remains an illusion for migrant workers who live in comparative peonage despite reforms inspired by Steinbeck's novel 51 years ago.
It would be difficult to find a stronger cast than the 35 people here. The cast is headed by Lois Smith as the indomitable Ma Joad, Gary Sinise as her stalwart son, Tom, and Terry Kinney as Casy, whose rustic socialism leads him to fight for migrant rights. Sinise, Kinney and Jeff Perry, who plays Ma's retarded son, Noah, are the founders of the Steppenwolf Theater.
Smith is totally believable as the weary, but determined Ma, head of family by default on the part of her well-meaning but unfocused husband, played with total authenticity by Robert Breuler. It is Ma's boundless charity that is reflected in her daughter's suckling of a starving stranger in the final, benedictory scene.
Sally Murphy is winning as the daughter, Rose of Sharon, and Mark Deakins is believable as her sincere but weak husband who walks away from their marriage. Jim True gives an outstanding performance as another Joad son, Al, who is sowing his wild oats. Nathan Davis plays a finely etched Granpa and James Noah makes the most of the dark presence of Uncle John.
Kevin Rigdon's sets are simplicity itself but he achieves much with lighting. Erin Quigley's costumes convey poverty at its drabbest. Michael Smith has written incidental music appropriate to period mixed with snatches of popular songs such as 'Yes, Sir, That's My Baby,' 'Dust Bowl Blues,' and 'California, Here I Come.'