Frank Galati’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s mammoth novel The Grapes of Wrath is currently on at Birmingham Rep. I have to say I was intrigued to see how a lengthy novel which covers so much ground (literally and metaphorically) could be adapted into a play, but I was impressed with how it worked.
The plot is outlined on the Rep website thus: “The Joads, a family of impoverished Oklahoman sharecroppers, lose everything when their farm is repossessed after a devastating drought and are driven from their home to make the monumental trek Westward to California. Seduced by the prospect of opportunity and dignity, they invest everything they have in the journey. When forced to face the possibility that California may not after all be the promised land, they have no choice but to go on; nothing is left for them in Oklahoma.”
As you can see, it’s quite a challenge, but one that was met with aplomb. Galati keeps the essence of the novel in his script, using some direct quotations from the novel, and is helped enormously by the fantastic set, which gave the impression of covering great spaces even on a small stage, and adding some irony by featuring contemporary advertising hoardings about “the American Dream”. Set in the Depression of the Thirties, this play is a harsh lesson about the economics of recession, from the issues of strikes to the value of workers when there are thousands too many looking for work.
As the Joads journey on, their loss of faith is evident – faith in God, in America, and even in humanity – in many ways the play was nearly 3 hours of unrelenting misery, and yet the faintly shocking but absolutely redemptive act of humanity at the end allows the play (and the book) to offer a genuinely cathartic experience in the tradition of classical tragedy. I was afraid that the play would have so much to cover that the audience would fail to be properly engaged with the characters, but I shouldn’t have worried – this is an adaptation well worth seeing.