Jay Hornbacher as Grandpa and Matt Bowdren as Tom Joad in The Rogue Theatre’s production of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Tim Fuller

Never one to turn away from a challenge, The Rogue Theatre is taking on the sprawling epic, “The Grapes of Wrath.”

John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from which the play is adapted tells the Depression-era story of the Joads, poor tenant farmers who leave their drought-stricken home state of Oklahoma and head west, as thousands have. There, the plan is to find work and hope.

The play was adapted in 1988 by Frank Galati for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre — and the company’s reputation soared after it was staged.

Joseph McGrath, Rogue’s co-founder and the company’s artistic director, is directing the production, which has a cast of 20 ranging in ages from 10 to 78. McGrath answered our questions via email:

Why this play and why now?

“‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is an iconic American novel. It depicts a moment in our history that is remembered in great part because of the novel itself. ... ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ has been, for many of us, our only source of understanding of the Dust Bowl, and for some of us, no doubt, of the Great Depression itself.

“In addition, it is ... a work of tremendous poetry. Steinbeck’s Joads speak with a dialect and syntax of rich color and texture, and the characters bring enormous humanity to the story. The novel’s characters are heartbreaking in both their cruelty and their generosity.

“The story of the Joads can tell us about our current world in two distinct ways: First is the issue of income inequality that historically plagues free markets. Here we get a look at folks with the work ethic and energy needed for a prosperous working class in a world where there simply is no work, or where the market forces of supply and demand are literally starving them to death. The Joads, skillful in their own world, are nevertheless easy marks for those willing to take advantage of desperate people. Second is the look we get at a familiar sight: refugees — in this case economic. The Joads share much with our contemporary refugees from Syria, Africa and Central America — their dreams, their sense of family, their work ethic — which is to simply point out their humanity.”

What do you see as the heart of this play?

“Endurance, resilience, generosity — these are qualities represented by the beating heart of the Joad family, Ma. She drives them forward at every moment of doubt. She pushes the family to feed strangers and offer a lift on the road. Ma makes the loaves and fishes stretch.

“Supply and demand — this is not very sexy-sounding, but ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is essentially socialist in its outlook, and illustrates a world where labor is completely unregulated. When there is a generous supply of labor, and there are no restrictions on its treatment, people are used and thrown away, and even starvation is tolerable as long as it remains out of sight.”

The book is an epic journey that doesn’t naturally translate to a theatrical experience. What kind of challenges have you faced to bring this classic to life?

“Galati’s adaptation, we’ve found, is quite skillful. He’s trimmed courageously, and has compressed the elements of time and space as needed to get the story told. ... Many scenes that take place at different times and great distances apart can transpire a few feet away on the stage, nearly simultaneously, and still come off beautifully. We are always challenged to rediscover what is possible in the imaginative world of the theatre. How do you tell this story without pushing an actual overloaded Hudson Super Six automobile across the stage? I’m confident we’ve solved the problem through suggestion and an invitation to the audience’s imagination.

“Of course, when Galati produced this adaptation and won a 1990 Tony Award with it, they were working with a lot of props and automated scenery. We have stripped most of that away, a choice that is suggested and receives Galati’s blessing in his notes on the play.”

What do you hope audiences will take from this production?

“For one thing, I think an understanding of what regulation of labor means would be a tremendous boon to an educated citizenry. The disaster of completely unprotected labor is illustrated here.

“But also, our astonishing and infinite capacity for love and generosity.”

Anything else?

“I’d like to point out how biblical this story is in so many unexpected ways:

  • “Jim Casy (initials J.C.) is a fallen preacher who’s spent his time in the wilderness at the story’s opening, and serves the family with a couple of public prayers, one a grace over a meal and one a eulogy, expressing a kind of Transcendental outlook, no longer the Pentecostal, revivalist Christianity he once espoused.
  • “The story begins in drought, ends in flood.
  • “The Joads and their entire world is in exodus, and heading for a promised land.

“This is not a religious story. Yet there is something divine and transcendent that seems to permeate the Joads, their hopes, their endurance, and their fate.”

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@tucson.com or 573-4128.