By George Basler

Judy McMahon remembers seeing the movie The Grapes of Wrath as a teenager and being emotionally riveted by the story of desperate migrants struggling to stay afloat during the Great Depression of the 1930s, while heading west to the “promised land” of California.

What attracted her was “the love the family had for one another and the interesting characters they met along the way,” she said.

McMahon is bringing this enthusiasm to her direction of a stage production of the classic story, which will be performed by Southern Tier Actors Read (S.T.A.R.) May 17-19 at the Phelps Mansion Museum in Binghamton.

McMahon, who co-founded S.T.A.R. in 2010, is directing a large cast of 19 actors. It’s the most ambitious production the group has ever undertaken both because of the size of the cast and the need to stay true to the themes in John Steinbeck’s original novel she said.

The stage adaptation is by Frank Galati, an Academy Award-nominated writer and director who was also a faculty member at Northwestern University for more than 30 years. The play originated at the legendary Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago before moving to Broadway, where Galati earned Tony Awards both as writer and director.

While McMahon has trimmed some scenes for the S.T.A.R. production, the essence of Galati’s adaptation remains in place. “The script is just beautifully written,” she said.

The S.T.A.R. production is a staged reading with actors reading from scripts while performing the play. But it won’t be static. Audience members who have never seen staged readings will be surprised at the liveliness, McMahon said, adding, “It’s not just people sitting in chairs. There’s a lot of movement.”

Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, controversial when it was first published, tells the story of the Joads, who leave their repossessed farm in Oklahoma in an old jalopy in search of work in California. Along the way they face exploitation by greedy bosses, stops in shanty work camps, brutal cops and stays in more humane government camps.

While Steinbeck’s novel is close to 100 years old, “a legitimate comparison” can be made between the story of the Joad family and the story of migrants in America today, McMahon said. Both groups are looking for work to survive, and both groups “get looked down on,” she noted.

S.T.A.R. will use impressionistic elements to convey the Joad family’s journey. For example, actors will sit in chairs and grasp a wheel to give the feeling of riding in a car. A simple set on the Phelps Mansion stage will show some of the items the family is leaving behind on its Oklahoma farm, such as a broken chair, a water can and a child’s stuffed animal, McMahon said.

Actors in the production include ones who have appeared in many other local and regional productions. McMahon applauds their efforts to bring the many characters in The Grapes of Wrath to life.  “They fell into the characters from the start,” she said.

Music will be provided by Doug Green, who will play a mixture of well-known folk songs on guitar, banjo and harmonica.

IF YOU GO: Southern Tier Actors Read will perform The Grapes of Wrath by Frank Galati, based on the novel by John Steinbeck, May 17-19 at the Phelps Mansion Museum, 191 Court St., Binghamton. Friday’s performance is at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15. For reservations, call the museum at 607-722-4873. Tickets also can be purchased at the door.