John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, became the classic 1940 movie directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda as young Tom Joad; last year, Frank Galati directed a brilliantly stylized, moving stage adaptation that won the 1990 Tony award for Best Play. Now, Galati’s version proves to be equally effective as a television experience.
The Grapes of Wrath is literature’s best-known portrayal of Okies — Depression-era farmers and their families trying to escape Oklahoma’s drought and famine by moving West to pick fruit. The Joad family members were Steinbeck’s emblematic Okies, and here Tom is embodied by Gary Sinise, cofounder of the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which oversaw this production. Galati tells the story of the Joads’ struggle and embitterment in a series of dramatic tableaux, such as their arrival in California, life in a hobo camp with other migrant workers, and Tom’s befriending of the dissolute Reverend Jim Casy, played by Terry Kinney, another Steppenwolf cofounder but perhaps more widely known for his excellent portrayal of one of Polly Draper’s drippier boyfriends in thirtysomething.
John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath concluded on an ennobling note, as Ma Joad vowed that the Okies were ”people that live; they can’t wipe us out.” Galati stays closer to Steinbeck’s book, which ended with the Joads in despair over the future — their own, and America’s. Unfortunately, there are a few scenes in which Galati also retains the air of sanctimony that surrounded the novel: At its most overreaching, The Grapes of Wrath isn’t about working-class people, it’s about the Noble Working Class. For all this, American Playhouse’s The Grapes of Wrath isn’t a bummer about bums; featuring great acting and fine folk- and country-music interludes performed by songwriter-guitarist Michael Smith, it’s a tragic spectacle of enormous emotional power. A-