In my mint-condition paperback of The Grapes of Wrath, tarrying optimistically around page 140, is a bookmark. In all likelihood, this bookmark will remain in that spot, getting appropriately dusty, until I retire and kick into high gear with my Van Halen-inspired self-enrichment program, C'mon Baby Finish What You Started: Dylan Hicks Completes the Literary Classics That He Didn't Much Like on First Inspection. No doubt I'm as wrong about the opening quarter of Steinbeck's Okiad as I was when I predicted a John Anderson landslide in the 1980 presidential contest. Nevertheless, and as much as I support the novel's message with raised fists, Steinbeck's realism feels false to me. And his labored dialect, overstuffed poetry, and pinko didacticism had me squawkin' an' sufferin' like a sow litterin' broken bottles of Diet Rite.
Still, I was looking forward to Starting Gate Productions' staging of Frank Galati's adaptation, a treatment originally produced by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 1988. Like any La-Z-Boy leftist, I feel a little tingle when Tom Joad gives Ma his famous post-enlightenment speech of selective omnipresence: "Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there." Maybe it's just the La-Z-Boy, but I find myself thinking, Heck, I wanna be there too, right after I catch a few winks in my new cashmere man nightie from Neiman Marcus. In other words, and all snarkiness (momentarily) aside, this can be powerful stuff.
In Starting Gate's version of the "I'll be there" speech, Steve Sweere makes Tom's idealism seem determined yet tentative and inchoate--these are new ideas for him, after all. He's resolute about going to the pokey or the grave fighting for the little people. But his shifting and shrugging carriage points to a possibly Sisyphean struggle. It's a less heroic interpretation than Henry Fonda's unambiguous performance from John Ford's classic (and less faithful) movie, but it's similarly inspiring.
Sweere makes Tom both gentle at heart and righteously hotheaded, though his performance doesn't quite give the show the leadership it needs. A discursive narrative united most by ideas, Grapes resists shortening, and this production doesn't have the epic sweep to tie it all together. The weather-beaten pilgrims die off and splinter along Route 66, but the dwindling has less impact than desired because the group isn't a terribly cohesive or vivid bunch to begin with. Sweere, Maggie Bearmon Pistner (as Ma), Alan Sorenson (as the philosophizing lapsed preacher Jim Casy), and Tedd Robb (as Grampa and others) are convincingly battered, stoic, and Oklahoman. But many of the younger members of the 16-person cast don't bring much definition to their small parts, and they seem to have lost their Okie accents in the last dust storm. More problematically, Dwight Gunderson's flat-affect Pa seems stoic to a fault.
The show's most puissant moments come courtesy of Steve Lewis, a commanding presence in several small roles (nine characters plus some narration!). He's particularly bang-on as The Man Going Back, a Midwesterner on his way home from a trek to Cali that left his kids dead from starvation. Lewis underlines the man's bitter, devastating speech with a hacking cough and a mournful, wide-eyed expression that's both babyish and world-weary.
With a few more scenes in that league, this Matt Sciple-directed show, a highly ambitious production for the small and still young Starting Gate, would be must-see rather than probably-wouldn't-hurt-to-check-out. Besides Lewis as the show's Depression-era Proteus, the Joel Sass-led design team makes the show's strongest argument for must-see status. Portable, slatted wooden panels effectively evoke campsites and filling stations and color the stage with stark, woody grays, accented with moonlight gold and barn red. Best of all is when the Joads' jalopy is assembled onstage using a headboard, an old chest, lighted milk cans, and other junk. It's a marvelous creation. Had I been a touch more engaged in this worthy but uneven play, maybe the truck wouldn't have inspired the following nonsensical thought: After the Joads' California-or-Dust plan goes south, they really ought to pursue a career out East as found-object sculptors.