October 03, 1988 12:00 PM

John Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine, had always had a special fondness for The Grapes of Wrath, her husband’s eighth and most famous novel. The wrenching tale of an Oklahoma family fleeing the Depression-era Dust Bowl, the book is “the jewel in the crown as far as John’s work is concerned,” says Elaine. John Ford’s masterly 1940 film of the book, which starred Henry Fonda, cemented the novel’s reputation as an American classic. But for 18 years following Steinbeck’s death, his wife turned down all requests to bring Wrath to the stage. “I thought it would be difficult to adapt,” says Elaine, who was one of the country’s first women stage managers, “and I didn’t want it botched.”

Then in 1986, Elaine was offered what appeared to be the ideal setting for her jewel. Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company wanted to adapt the novel. Having seen and admired several of their productions, Elaine thought it would be “the perfect marriage.” By giving her permission, Steinbeck’s widow was formally acknowledging what theater buffs have known for years: Steppenwolf, famous for its rowdy, rough-edged productions of such innovative dramas as Sam Shepard’s True West, is the cream of this country’s regional theater crop. With the Sept. 18 debut of their epic $500,000 production of The Grapes of Wrath—directed by Frank Galati—the remarkable company is hitting the big time in a big way. The three-hour show, subsidized partly by AT&T, boasts a cast of 41, a folksy musical score and an ingenious set, complete with fire and rain.

Meanwhile, Steppenwolf is about to begin construction on a new $3 million theater. “Yeah, it’s all coming together at once,” says Gary Sinise, 33, one of three young actors who started the company 14 years ago in a Unitarian church in suburban Highland Park. While Sinise was preparing for the role of Tom Joad in Wrath, he was also promoting his first Hollywood movie, Miles from Home, in which he directs Richard Gere and Steppenwolfer Kevin Anderson. (Five other company members have minor roles.)

A self-described suburban hoodlum, Sinise got his first taste of acting in a high school production of West Side Story. “Me and my greaser friends stormed into the auditions and demanded parts,” he says. Skipping college, he linked up in 1974 with Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry of the Illinois State University theater program and began perfecting a brash, electric style of ensemble acting.

Working with a small budget, Steppenwolf incubated some remarkable talent: Joan (Tucker) Allen, who won a 1987 Tony for Broadway’s Burn This, playing opposite Steppenwolf colleague John (Making Mr. Right) Malkovich; John Mahoney, who shines in Eight Men Out; Laurie Metcalf, the harpy in Desperately Seeking Susan, who will appear on comedienne Roseanne Barr’s new ABC show this fall.

How Steppenwolf’s latest effort will fare remains to be seen. “Flawless,” pronounced the Chicago Sun-Times after Wrath’s debut. “Sluggish,” sniffed the Chicago Tribune. But one critic, at least, can hardly contain her delight. “It was beyond my wildest dreams,” says Elaine Steinbeck, who flew in from New York for opening night. “I was weeping, because I wanted John there. He would absolutely have loved it.”

—By Kim Hubbard, with Barbara Kleban Mills in Chicago

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