Converting a novel into a movie or play requires radical simplification while remaining true to the plot and characters. With a movie, you have fully fleshed film locations that speak thousands of words. In the theater, you have several sets that must evoke location. In the case of The Rogue, you have one set and clever wooden boxes that rearrange themselves into the truck, dining tables, stools, and stands. Thus, 169,481 words make their way into two hours and forty-five on stage.
Frank Galati, a member of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, adapted The Grapes of Wrath in ’88. It was produced in Chicago, then traveled to Broadway where it won the Tony for Best Play in ’90. It did not run even a year—this is not the fodder for the matinee crowd. I was fortunate to see the Steppenwolf Chicago production. Though memories of the production are dim, The Rogue production seemed more emotional, real, and benefitted from the small stage.
Galati included music in his adaptation. The Rogue’s program says, “Music Direction and Original Composition by Jake Sorgen”. So, I’m inferring that what we heard was all original to this production, though some pieces were old folk favorites. Here, the music and the players melded into the production, playing non-speaking parts where a “crowd” was needed. Vicki Brown, violin, and Jake Sorgen, guitar, made wonderful music together and formed much of the frame surrounding and supporting the plot.
The Okie story is told in vignettes: at the Oklahoma sharecrop farm, leaving the farm, on the road and camping, at the campground by the picking fields, on the road – again. It’s the eternal story of the disenfranchised poor—contrasted with the off-stage middle class, living some form of the American dream even in the Depression. They are the farm owner who evicts the Joads, the law enforcement men who harass and arrest migrants, the growers who pit needy against needy to keep wages low, the nascent unions that promise help, but can’t or won’t come through for the pickers. To leave Oklahoma was to leave hell. To make a new life in California was a living hell. In the audience, you felt shame and pain for this black part of American history. You also felt the love among the Joads and how they were clannishly bonded until California broke their spirits.
The Rogue Ensemble were excellent in their roles. David Greenwood, as Pa Joad, at last had a leading role where his vocal “twang” authenticated the character. His phlegmatic style befits the family leader. Matt Bowdren, as Tom Joad, and Cynthia Meier, as Ma Joad, shared the unspoken love of mother and oldest child, no matter how unpredictable the child.
There are 39 characters in The Grapes of Wrath—20 actors are listed in the program guide. Director, Joe McGrath, did a masterful job of seamlessly blending the characters, choreographing the almost constant movement and delivering the meaning of the play clearly. Travel was signified by “constructing the truck”, situated on the small round circle stage right, propelled around by cast members using long sticks fitted into holes. It all worked for the audience. Lighting Designer, Don Fox, made effective use of back-lighting upstage to create silhouettes that added kuroko-like extra players to crowd scenes.
The Rogue Theatre again took a difficult play, challenged by the need for a large cast, and made it look effortless. Kudos for a great production.