'Grapes of Wrath': It's Mother's Milk to Steppenwolf

For theaters in the 1980s, making poverty look real is a pricey proposition.

By the time Steppenwolf Theatre Company unveils its newly revised version of "The Grapes of Wrath" at La Jolla Playhouse on Sunday, nearly $1 million will have been spent translating John Steinbeck's 50-year-old Pulitzer-Prize winning novel about migrant farm workers to the stage.

Half of that was spent by Steppenwolf in its original 41-character Chicago production; the Playhouse ponied up $450,000 for Steppenwolf's revised (read "pared-down") version, making the now 35-character show the most expensive in the life of both companies.

And more will be spent when "The Grapes of Wrath" leaves La Jolla on June 17 to open at the National Theatre in London a few days later.

The stakes have certainly risen since Steppenwolf founders Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney, and their fellow high school and college students, jump-started the company 13 years ago in the basement of a Catholic elementary school in Highland Park, Ill.

Still, while much has changed for the troupe in the years since the trio had to scramble to find $300 to put on a show, much abides.

What Sinise, Perry and Kinney wanted to create in that 88-seat basement was a family of actors who made group decisions about their choice of work and directors. Never mind that the acting ensemble in the early years often outnumbered the audience and that one of the main contentions backstage was whether they thought it was worth it to go on. ("We always did," Kinney said. "What else were we going to do?")

The company's goal was to build a safe haven for performers in a world that provides no shortage of discouragement for unknowns.

Their loyalty to each other in darker days continues to pay off with a variety of rewards, including a Tony Award in 1985. And some members of Steppenwolf have gone on to greater fame: John Malkovich ("Dangerous Liaisons"), John Mahoney ("Say Anything") and Joan Allen (now starring on Broadway in "The Heidi Chronicles").

It was the reputation of Sinise and Malkovich's work in the Steppenwolf production of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" that won the company the permission of Steinbeck's widow, Elaine, to adapt the book for the stage.

During a rehearsal break, Sinise, Perry and Kinney, who act in the play as Tom Joad, Noah Joad and Jim Casy, marveled at their artistic journey, which, in its way, resembles the remarkable journey of the Joads themselves.

The choice of a play about farmers who look for work in California after losing their Oklahoma land was in tune with the spirit of the company, they all agree.

"The theme of the book is about 'I' becoming 'we,' " Kinney said. "It's something that moved us because it's about people who are disenfranchised. We've always felt communion with the underdog because we were that in what we did.

"No one can relate to people who live in the street like actors. We are gypsies, itinerants, on the move. We really felt we could shed light on the project because of that."

For the adapter, Frank Galati, who received an Academy Award nomination last year for the adaptation of "The Accidental Tourist" that he wrote with director Lawrence Kasdan, it is also a dream project, the first that came to mind when Sinise asked him what work he would most like to do with the ensemble.

Rather than being intimidated by the 1940 movie, "Grapes of Wrath," which he said he admires, Galati was inspired to bring to the play what Hollywood could not more than 40 years ago.

Instead of the Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon, giving birth to a healthy baby as she does in the movie, Rose of Sharon's baby will be stillborn, as in the book. And, as in the book, playgoers will see Rose using her mother's milk to feed a starving man--a scene not included in the movie.

That scene lies at the heart of Steinbeck's message, that a man may not have a soul of his own, but instead may be part of one big soul.

This message is reflected in Steppenwolf's commitment to elevate the work of the whole over that of the individuals. It's a commitment that gets increasingly tested since the early days when necessity was part of the glue that kept them together.

"In the early days we would say half-jokingly that we stayed together because we were scared to audition," Perry said. "It was rare, it is rare, it shall always be rare for people to agree that what they can create together is greater than what they can create alone."

Now that Perry, Sinise and Kinney are popping up as actors and directors on shows like "thirtysomething" and "Columbo," they have distanced themselves from the group's day-to-day decisions. In the last few years, they have moved from Chicago, home of Steppenwolf's 211-seat house. Perry and Sinise keep in contact by phone from Los Angeles and Kinney from New York, as plans are being made for a new 525-seat proscenium house that is scheduled to open in the fall of 1990.

They all say they will remain part of the ensemble, even if the Hollywood doors open wider.

"From a certain perspective they don't really need the company; from another perspective they desperately need it," said Galati, who keeps busy as a screenwriter, a professor at Northwestern University and associate artistic director of Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

"It meets an emotional and a spiritual need to work with this group of actors," he added. "There isn't a single person who isn't blessed by being in the company. Including myself.

"The theater is such a torment. It's full of so many losses. Failure is such a part of the integral process; it is always just around the corner. In the face of that, this company offers the kind of bonding that settles in after many years of work and play. It's the kind of tensile strength that flows in the Joad family. It keeps us together even while we are flying apart."

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