April 22, 2004

The Art of the Depression

Print More

Something’s to be said for a book that finds itself at home both on AP English class shelves and included in Rage Against the Machine’s recommended reading list — a book that borrows its title from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and whose main character was later immortalized by Bruce Springsteen.

Undoubtedly, John Steinbeck’s acclaimed masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath has proven itself as a true modern classic, and the work comes to the Cornell Schwartz Center starting April 29. Beginning in Oklahoma’s dustbowl during the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family in their trek westward. As unemployed farmers, the diverse family hears of work in California and they pack their meager belongings to begin the arduous journey. After much turmoil, they eventually arrive at their destination, only to discover unfulfilled promises. The few available jobs offer almost no compensation and strikes quickly start to organize. Having cracked somewhat along the way, the remaining family perseveres to exist in this inhuman climate with countless others like themselves. At the heart of the family is the iconic Tom Joad (Godfrey L. Simmons), a convicted murderer whose dynamic nature and intolerance for societal wrongs make him among the most memorable characters in literature.

For those familiar with John Ford’s much-admired 1940 film adaptation starring Henry Fonda, Frank Galati’s play provides a distinctly alternative representation of the novel. Cynics and purists alike accuse the film of ending two thirds of the way through the book and suggesting a far happier conclusion. The play’s director, Bruce Levitt, shares these sentiments: “I watched the movie and, at the time, that was thought to be a pretty faithful adaptation. But, looking over the two, the play adaptation is much richer and rewarding than the movie.” Begun in a theatre workshop in 1988, Galati’s adaptation was developed into a major production that found success in London before being brought to Broadway, where it won the 1990 Tony for Best Play.

Although considerably condensed from the sprawling 600-page novel, Levitt strives to incorporate as much as possible into the stage version. Using one of the most striking and technically inventive sets in the theatre’s history, the crew manages to convincingly display the campfires, rivers, and storms the Joads encounter along their journey. “We had to look at the demands of the script,” Levitt says. “Obviously, there are a number of ways to do the show. But we felt the elements of fire and water were fairly important to understand the environment of the piece.” The actual construction of the set required ingenious uses of the Schwartz’s elaborate stage. For instance, the Colorado River is formed by flooding the entire orchestra pit.

In addition to this technical finesse, the play uses traditional folk songs by Woodie Guthrie and original compositions as interludes (acting as equivalents of Steinbeck’s more historical and descriptive passages). Levitt was a fan of Mac Benford, a banjo player from the praised Highwoods String Band, and wrangled him into the position of music supervisor for the production. Aside from listening to these classic Depression-era tunes, the actors worked for weeks gaining insight into Okie culture and environments. Levitt says, “We worked at first on just orienting everyone to the book and the production. I distributed this volume called The Harvest Gypsies, a collection of Steinbeck’s essays, to all the cast members. He was assigned in the ’30s to write stories for a San Francisco newspaper. Then, we did a lot of ensemble work and improve. We talked about labor and the history in order to put it in people’s bodies — from peeling potatoes to doing tedious, laborious manual work — so it coalesced into a very natural, almost physical, experience for the actors.”

Asked if Henry Fonda’s portrayal was influential, Simmons says, “Before the rehearsal, I watched a little bit of it. I’d seen it years and years ago. You sort of figure out what not to do from it, you know? But the movie was helpful in that, on a stage, you don’t really get a good sense of the physical aspect of the play. Ford’s movie was shot on location in Oklahoma, and so we got a chance to see the landscape. And we looked at pictures from the PWA [Public Works Administration]. Also, almost as a coincidence, I happened to need to go to the West Coast, and I drove cross-country, cutting through Oklahoma. So I saw the area where the characters are from. Obviously, there were no dust storms, and it wasn’t in the midst of a long, hot summer. But at the very least, I saw the landscape and how people talk.”

Barrie Kreinik ’07 was similarly devoted in researching her character, Rose of Sharon. “Most of my readings were of Steinbeck’s journalistic and fictional work on femininity and babies, stories about child death. So I’m concentrating on Steinbeck’s actual tone, but I also have to bring a lot of gravity to that, and really imagine the character.”

With live music, highly talented professional and student actors, as well as Bruce Levitt’s innovative direction, the play succeeds admirably in presenting one of America’s finest literary accomplishments through a both powerful and easily accessible medium. When asked, Simmons says he finds the story “simply galvanizing. Everyone buys into it. It’s such a story of the transcendence of the human spirit. It trumps the challenges of each actor’s individual experience.” Anyone familiar with the novel in its various forms already knows this is true, and should be excited for the newest presentation at the Cornell Schwartz Center.

The Grapes of Wrath runs from April 29 – May 1 and May 6-8. For tickets and info, call (607) 254-ARTS.

Archived article by Matt Kaschalk and Alex Linhardt