"The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's epic novel about the plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression, might seem too unwieldy for the stage -- particularly the diminutive stage at the Spotlighters. But the dramatic economy with which this challenge has been met is evident as soon as the Joad family sits down to share a meal in one of the opening scenes.
Carting an assortment of orange crates, boards, tin dishes and eating utensils, the exuberant, extended family rushes in and sets up a makeshift table and chairs. Immediately, the audience is aware that: 1) the Joads are poor and in transit, and 2) they're together and making due.
Adapted by Frank Galati for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company, which took it to Broadway in 1990, this massive narrative has been cleverly and nimbly directed at the Spotlighters by Barry Feinstein. On opening night, almost every scene garnered applause -- a rare occurrence in community theater, but well-earned here.
Although this may be the theater's biggest production ever -- the cast numbers more than 30, and there's live musical accompaniment -- the most moving staging is in the small moments. After Grampa (John Howell) dies, five men mime his burial, laying down their shovels in the outline of a grave. Instead a corpse, Grampa -- or, more accurately, his spirit -- looks on pensively; it is a haunting image.
Of course, such images wouldn't work without effective performances, and despite lines that occasionally sound like "Hee Haw," almost all of the actors attack their roles with admirable seriousness of purpose. In the case of the two leads, this approaches the level of nobility. Spotlighters artistic director Audrey Herman plays Ma Joad with so much serenity and understanding that it's easy to see why one character says she's "so great with love that she scares me." Similarly, as her son Tom, William Runnebaum exudes goodness and determination, and he even manages to bring freshness to Tom's hackneyed speech about fighting hunger and injustice everywhere.
Other notable cast members include Justine Williams as Tom's nervous, pregnant sister; Greg Kemper as his teen-age brother; and Bill Grauer as tough-spirited Pa. Joseph Moore is adequate in the pivotal role of a lapsed preacher, but his performance would have more resonance if it had a darker edge.
If "The Grapes of Wrath" has one overriding theme, it is, as the preacher says, that mankind is "all one thing" -- a community that can work together for the greater good. The beauty of this production is that it not only conveys that philosophy, it is the theatrical embodiment of it.
'The Grapes of Wrath'
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; matinees Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Through Dec. 1.
Where: Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St.
Tickets: $7 and $8.
Call: (410) 752-1225.