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Chicago Troupe Gives Broadway Potent `Grapes of Wrath'

THE GRAPES OF WRATH Play by Frank Galati, based on the novel by John Steinbeck. Directed by Mr. Galati. At the Cort Theatre. `THE GRAPES OF WRATH'' is a triumph of imaginative stagecraft and dedicated playmaking. The already acclaimed adaptation by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company comes to Broadway performed by a 35-member cast, all of whose principals and most of whose secondary actors are from the original production. The result is ensemble playing of a very high order.

John Steinbeck's 1939 Pulitzer Prize novel told the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma farm family dispossessed by the drought and economic adversities of the times. Overloaded onto their Hudson Super Six truck, three generations of Joads begin the trek from Oklahoma to California, with dreams of lush orchards and vineyards to be harvested beyond the Rockies. There are deaths and defections along the way. And a hostile California proves anything but the hoped for promised land.

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Frank Galati's adaptation condenses the sprawling incidents of the Steinbeck novel while remaining faithful to its main elements, its romantic and even sentimental tone, its sensational (though not sensationalized) finale.

The principals of the human drama are Ma Joad (Lois Smith), whose faith in the family never falters; Pa Joad (Robert Breuler), a modest man grappling with the challenges of the westward venture; and Tom Joad (Gary Sinise), recently paroled from prison after serving time on a murder conviction. In the end, Tom becomes the self-declared champion of the oppressed and dispossessed.

The joys and perils of the momentous journey unfold in a series of fluid sequences artfully composed by adapter-director Galati. While the journey is marked by adversity and mounting crisis, he and his collaborators pay due respect to the comic and humorous aspects of the tale. Terry Kinney's Jim Casy, the ex-preacher who has lost ``the spirit,'' provides a commentary filled with ironic reflections and philosophical observations on his own defection and the state of the world.

Mr. Sinise with his quiet intensity and Miss Smith with her unfailing maternalism typify the high standard of acting that enlivens ``The Grapes of Wrath.'' Among the many vivid and down-to-earth portrayals are those of Sally Murphy (Rose of Sharon), Nathan Davis and Lucina Paquet (Grampa and Gramma Joad), Jim True (Al Joad), Jeff Perry (Noah), and Francis Guinan, who serves as one of the several narrators and whose frenzied recital of disillusionment as the Man Going Back offers a foretaste of things ahead for the optimistic Okies.

Kevin Rigdon's dramatic scenery and lighting, Erin Quigley's costumes, and Rob Milburn's sound design (including an electrifying electric storm) all contribute to the artistic totality of ``The Grapes of Wrath.'' So does the folkish incidental instrumental and vocal music performed by Michael Smith (guitar), Miriam Sturm (fiddle), L.J. Slavin (harmonica, saw, jaw harp, banjo), and William Schwarz (accordion, bass).

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