by Cary M. Mazer
The Grapes of Wrath
Arden Theater Company, 40 N. Second St., through Nov. 22, 922-8900
Take, for example, the car.
When Frank Galati first staged his adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1988, he may have pared down the physical world to a minimum, but the things he retained were concrete and palpable. If you saw that production in New York or on PBS, you'll remember the open flames of the campfires; the pool of water into which the menfolk did cannonball dives; and the torrential rains. But most of all, you will remember the car: an actual jalopy, carrying all 13 members of the extended Joad family, along with their possessions, as they traveled from their foreclosed farm in Oklahoma in 1938 to the fertile valleys of California.
At the Arden, director Terrence J. Nolen (a former student of Galati's at Northwestern) and set designer David P. Gordon make do without the open flames (instead, red lights glow through the fabric covering the stage floor) and the water tank (instead, reflected light, designed by Jerold R. Forsyth, dances across the canopy that curves up and over the stage).
But what Nolen and Gordon do for the car is miraculous. At the Arden, the car isn't just a vehicle that holds the Joad family's possessions; it is their possessions: an upturned table serves as the chassis, boxes of possessions the seats and fenders.
In staging The Grapes of Wrath, Nolen and the Arden are returning to the early days of the theater company, when most of their productions were adaptations of non-dramatic material. And in the devices he uses to stage the story, Nolen is returning Galati's script to the most fundamental resources of theatrical storytelling.
Actors stretch barbed-wire fences across the stage, hold up sections of storm fencing and barn walls. Nolen's staging is all about crossing boundaries. Tom Joad, the paroled jailbird son (Greg Wood, more angry and less laconic then either Henry Fonda in the film version or Gary Sinise in the Steppenwolf production), is constantly ducking under fences and crawling through openings in walls, unwilling to be penned in by the family's poverty, and unwilling to be exploited by red-baiting farm foremen or union-busting deputies.
Nolen uses the wide expanse of the playing space to convey the immensity of the country and the emptiness of the characters' lives - the most effective use of the Arden's new Haas stage yet. He employs an enormous company of 25 actors and musicians. There are some vivid cameo performances (Jack Coulter as a disillusioned Okie returning from California, Mets Suber as an outspoken migrant laborer), though the sheer number of actors doesn't always feel justified, for the focus of the production remains firmly fixed on the Joad family and on the vivid impressions the actors make in their roles. Tom McCarthy is Pa; Sally Mercer, as Ma, uses her attenuated fleshlessness and a slightly old-movie diction to compensate for her relative youthfulness; James A. Pyduck is the guilt-ridden alcoholic uncle, Kevin O'Donnell is a horny brother, Dito van Reigersberg is a mentally handicapped brother, and Suli Holum is the pregnant sister Rose of Sharon.
Most compelling of all is the performance of Henry Woronicz as Jim Casy, the disillusioned former minister, whose surprise transformation into a labor organizer jolts Tom Joad into action (in a stunning fight scene choreographed by Darla Max).
Nowhere are Nolen's uses of the theater's simplest resources put to better use than in the final sequence of the evening - the part of the novel that John Ford's 1940 film version left out. The family is now living with two other families in a box car next to a river swollen with rainwater. In place of the real rainstorm of the Steppenwolf production, actors drum their fingers on tin plates and washtubs, as other actors ripple the ground cloth, now raised to form a wall behind the family, as though the earth itself is beginning to rise and swallow them up.
Presented in such simple and direct theatrical terms, such scenes of life and death have extraordinary power. Few things in the theater will move you more.