'Grapes of Wrath' intense, stunning

Television

March 22, 1991|By Michael Hill

"The Grapes of Wrath" is a stunning piece of theater that works so well on television that you can only imagine the effect it must have had on those who bought a ticket and sat in the same room with these actors for a couple of hours.

The second edition of PBS' American Playhouse to air this week, "The Grapes of Wrath" will be on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, tonight at 9 o'clock. Though 2 1/2 hours in length, it's the type of intense experience that will rarely have you checking your watch.

Based on John Steinbeck's acclaimed novel about refugees from Oklahoma's dust bowl who headed west searching for a new life during the Depression, this stage version comes across with a harder edge than that of the much-lauded John Ford-directed film which starred Henry Fonda in one of his greatest roles.

The movie's Tom Joad had a sort of Everyman-like decency at his core that Fonda brought to most of his roles. In this stage version, Gary Sinese gives the character an angry intensity, making him the type of Tom Joad you could imagine Robert DeNiro or Ray Liotta playing.

It's hard to put your finger on what makes "The Grapes of Wrath" work so well on the small screen, a medium that is disastrous for so many stage productions. Certainly Kirk Browning's direction deserves credit. But most of the praise has to go to a cast that sounds nary a false note all evening. It's hard to pick a standout among such stellar performances, but certainly Sinese is excellent and Robert Brueler is particularly good as Pa Joad, as is Lois Smith as Ma.

Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater produced this version of "The Grapes of Wrath" in collaboration with Steinbeck's widow Elaine, who introduces tonight's broadcast. It uses brief bits of music to link vignettes taken from the Joads' journey.

The length allows an understanding of Steinbeck's religious symbolism of sacrifice, redemption and renewal, as well as a clear view of the work as a generational saga of life in America that chronicled the demise of the cultivators who had formed human civilization and the rise of a new breed of hunter-gatherers, destined to roam the country not in search of game and food, but of jobs.

Despite good reviews and two Tonys, "The Grapes of Wrath" didn't last that long on Broadway. New York theater-goers apparently prefer Andrew Lloyd Weber spectacle to Steinbeck insight. Perhaps the response to this PBS production will confirm one thing Steinbeck was saying in this book -- that the good sense, and good taste, of America is found not in its cultured elite, but in its Okies.

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"Shannon's Deal" comes back tomorrow night and shows that this excellent NBC drama hasn't lost a step since its first eight episodes aired almost a year ago.

It returns Saturday at 10 o'clock on Channel 2 (WMAR) with its main character, Jack Shannon, facing an old demon -- gambling -- as he tries to help a new girlfriend get child support from her ex-husband.

Though occasionally plot developments clunk into place with a bit of a heavy hand, for the most part this is an hour of subtlety and nuance, featuring a finely modulated performance by Jamey Sheridan who seems to have gotten an even better grip on this character in the months he spent away from it.

Created by John Sayles, who has since left the series in the capable hands of executive producer Stan Rogow, "Shannon's Deal" is about a lawyer who was riding high as a corporate attorney in the '80s but blew it all in a total burnout.

Now, with the help of a conscientious secretary, who also provides his conscience, he's got a sparse office in a dilapidated walk-up building and is trying to start over, and to pay off his gambling debts.

NBC originally planned to bring "Shannon's Deal" back with a two-hour movie, then shelved that for this one-time hit on Saturday night. Finally, this week the network announced that its limited run will be shown on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. starting April 9.

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Masterpiece Theatre closes out its re-run-laden celebration of its 20th anniversary with "Backstage at Masterpiece Theatre" Sunday night at 9 o'clock on MPT.

It's an hour strictly for fans. It mixes interviews with host Alistair Cooke, producer John Hawkesworth ("Upstairs, Downstairs," "Danger UXB") and a variety of actors -- including Peggy Ashcroft, Derek Jacobi, Art Malik, Keith Michel, Kate Nelligan and Diana Rigg -- with scenes from various productions featured over the years on this most-honored PBS program.

If you remember all the series, it will add insight as it triggers a flood of wonderful memories. If you don't, it won't make much sense.

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