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THEATER : Dust Bowl Diaries : Memoirs of people who came to California from the ravaged Midwest of the 1930s are woven into an emotional theater piece opening tonight.

February 19, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times.

One day in 1982, Peter Grego was lying on an air mattress in his friend's back-yard swimming pool, and like any good Southern California sunbather, he was reading a script.

It wasn't, though, a script in any traditional sense. It was the raw data of raw lives, individual memoirs of people who had left the ravaged Midwest Dust Bowl of the '30s for California. The recollections had been transcribed from tape recordings made by the California Odyssey Project, established to document and commemorate the epic of the Dust Bowl refugees.

These were the people whom novelist John Steinbeck met and transformed into figures of American tragedy in "The Grapes of Wrath." Grego, lying there in the pool, was reading the memoirs as monologues that could be adapted to the stage. As a theater professor and director at Cal State Bakersfield, a campus situated in the heart of the land where the Dust Bowl people settled, he was in an ideal position to help create a play for the Odyssey Project.

But Grego knew this historical chapter only vaguely, and the theater world had basically ignored the story: It would be six years until playwright Frank Galati and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre produced their Tony Award-winning version of "The Grapes of Wrath." So the director didn't know what to expect as he thumbed through the pages.

"I started crying right there," says Grego. "I couldn't believe that all 2,300 pages of transcribed material were as powerful as what I was reading. But I read on and realized they were."

Grego turned the raw text into "From Dust Thou Art," which he first staged in Bakersfield in 1983, then trimmed to its present form, which he is unveiling tonight at Cal State Northridge's Little Theatre.

"Every time I've done this, it's been a new kind of animal, with new challenges," says Grego, who has been a CSUN professor since 1984.

"I took the whole summer of '82 to go through the Odyssey Project's volumes, picking out the strongest passages, piecing them together in a chronology that takes us from the devastated farmlands of Oklahoma and Texas to what looked to these people like the golden land of California. But it took working with the cast to put a shape to the sequences."

Grego had never before adapted, let alone written, a play; his busy career as teacher and director hadn't let him. Before he had any proper stage training, Grego took over a small Pennsylvania theater in 1968 ("My baptism of fire"). Grego went on to direct at his alma mater, Carnegie-Mellon University; at an English-language performance space in Berlin, and, in the last decade, at several Los Angeles-area theaters--from the Inner City Cultural Center to the International City Theatre, where he staged lauded productions of "Vanishing Points" and "A . . . My Name is Alice." An encounter in 1985 with master Japanese theater artist Tadashi Suzuki took Grego to a hillside village in northern Japan. There, he trained in Suzuki's performance method, which Grego sums up as "acting that begins at the soles of your feet, working from the outside in rather than the American style of going from the inside out." Suzuki has asked Grego to return to Japan and become a full-fledged trainer, but Grego is delaying the move until he's "mentally and physically ready."

Those who have worked with Grego for years, such as lighting designer Paulie Jenkins, are struck by his ability to amass ideas and information: "He's very visual--he studied art--so when I present him various design options, he knows what I'm talking about. Whenever I do a show with Peter, he sends me a five-pound mailing stuffed with his research. He's the only director I've ever worked with who puts together such a vast supply of information. We may end up using a small portion of it, but for him, it's all in the details."

Of course, "From Dust Thou Art" was a child of research. But it has ended up being a work of emotional catharsis.

"In Bakersfield," he recalls, "the text had this amazing resonance. There's a passage in which a mother tells of how, out of despair, she nearly drowned herself and her children. Well, the same woman was in the audience with her children, and turned to them and said, 'That was my story.'

"In one case, we pulled together the memories of a family who survived in a barn with a pig's trough as a bed. The mother had nearly wiped out the memory, perhaps out of shame. Her daughter, who was a teen-ager during the Depression, held onto it as the worst time of her life. But her little brother, who was only 4, remembered it as the warmest time of his life, when he was most loved by his mother and sister.

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