Consider the horror movie: A group of people ends up stranded. They aren't bad people, just naïve. They've made a deadly choice, but they're oblivious to the danger. One by one, they die off. They're knifed and strangled and electrocuted, and the audience guesses, with gritted teeth, which plucky hero will survive.
At its core, The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, is a horror story. But instead of madmen or poltergeists, the slayer is capitalism. No hooks or chainsaws are required; capitalism murders with sickness and police batons -- and in the end, the victim might just starve to death. When the Joad family packs its truck and traverses the dusty wastes toward California, most are already marked for death. Jason and Freddy aren't half as cruel as American strikebreakers.
Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama brings the novel to life, but it's a miserable life, a life of drudgery and fear. Frank Galati adapted the 464-page novel into a two-and-a-half-hour drama in 1988, and the stage play strives to be just as heartrending as the original prose. Joads die of illness and Joads run away. Joads kill in self-defense and Joads are carted off to jail. One Joad dies in the womb and other Joads regret ever being born. Even the meager junk they've carted along is washed away in floods. They didn't call it the Depression for nothing.
The story is long and involved, and Galati's adaptation just barely pulls it off. Director Barbara McKenzie-Wood has staged her production on a spare set, where smooth wood panels and a tall ceiling mirror the empty expanse of the American West. An army of actors creates scenes out of rubbish -- buckets and crates and a dozen miner's lamps. Although the gimmick feels hokey at first, Steinbeck's brilliance shines through, warming every scene with Pulitzer Prize-winning imagery. This story should be too big for stage, but McKenzie-Wood wrangles the narrative into submission. If this play does nothing else, it makes us hunger to read the book.
As expected, CMU's conservatory cast works hard; The Grapes of Wrath is stone-cold tragedy, and everyone on stage takes the words seriously. Some scenes are stronger than others, and some roles -- such as old men and expectant mothers -- aren't easy for 21-year-old students to play. There are, however, exceptional performances by Caitlin Kimball (as Ma) and Hunter Seagroves (as Jim Casey, the iconic preacher). Yet while such brisk storytelling doesn't leave much time for subtlety, in the end, Grapes is fruitful.
The Grapes of Wrath continues thru Oct. 10. Philip Chosky Theatre, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-2407 or www.cmu.edu/cfa/drama