SEATTLE — It’s a confluence of events John Steinbeck never could have envisioned: In the Gulf states, tens of thousands of people uprooted by natural disasters pack up their belongings and migrate to other regions, looking for new jobs, homes and lives. Meanwhile, in far-off Seattle, small groups of strangers gather for public readings of “The Grapes of Wrath,” reliving the mass migration sparked by the Dust Bowl 70 years earlier.
The refugee Joad family, perhaps Steinbeck’s most indelible creation, has captured this city’s attention, largely due to the efforts of the Intiman Theater.
Intiman slated Frank Galati’s adaptation of the novel for this season a couple of years ago, when it announced plans to produce the play as part of a five-year “American Cycle” of classic texts. But the timing of the production — as the devastation of Katrina, Rita and Wilma are still unfolding — has turned out to be disturbingly prescient.
In the hushed theater, when Uncle John (Russell Hodgkinson) takes the small body of Rose of Sharon’s stillborn baby and floats it downriver to deliver its grim message of human misery to the world, it calls to mind heart-wrenching, contemporary news footage of suffering Louisianans.
The parallels between the Dust Bowl and 2005’s hurricane diaspora may not be exact, but they are numerous, says Sara Patton, exec director of the Northwest Energy Coalition and co-chair of Intiman’s community committee. “Both were natural disasters,” she explains, “but hastened by man.” Short-sighted farming practices contributed to the former; poor environmental practices (such as draining wetlands) exacerbated the latter. And “once again, the poor, the people who were not adequately prepared, were victimized,” Patton says.
Intiman is pointing up the lessons to be learned through a lobby exhibit, lectures by experts on Steinbeck and labor history and community readings of the script. The readings, for which members of the public sign up in advance, give voice to Steinbeck’s words in neighborhood gathering spots, such as schools, museums and bookstores. These are casual events, punctuated by missed cues and sometimes striking or comical ad-libs, but they bring together strangers who share a passion about either literature or the environment or social justice — or all three.
This kind of outreach has proven so effective that Intiman has extended the run of “Wrath,” which opened Oct. 7, by a week, through Nov. 19.
According to Lisa Fulton, director of marketing for Intiman, the ticket sales goal for shows in Intiman’s American Cycle is set at three times the goal for a typical production. Last year, “Our Town,” which opened the cycle, met that goal, becoming the second-highest selling show in Intiman history (excluding holiday productions), after “Angels in America.”
“Grapes of Wrath” is currently at 70% of its goal, and on track to tie or even slightly exceed sales for “Our Town.”
Those brisk sales have been bolstered by generally strong reviews for director Linda Hartzell’s unsentimental take on the play. A few critics found her approach too restrained, but Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic Joe Adcock wasn’t put off: “In a word: Wow!,” he wrote. Beth Dixon drew praise for her gritty perf as Ma Joad, and most critics, including the Seattle Times’ Misha Berson, ultimately succumbed to the enduring power of the story: “The play’s ending … with its Pieta image of sacrifice and rebirth, is profoundly moving.”