When Maine writer and playwright Caitlin Shetterly bottomed out economically and moved in with her mother, she channeled the great American writer John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck wrote dramatically about the Great Depression. His 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath” told the story of the Joads, who were driven from the Oklahoma plains by drought and hardship, and joined legions of others bound for California.

Shetterly and her husband, Dan, had a similar experience during American’s Great Recession. They too went to California, from Maine, in search of a better life. But they came back home broke, and moved in with her mom, who provided a safe haven for the couple to raise their young son.

She wrote about the experience in her memoir, “Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home,” which was published in 2011. On Saturday, Shetterly returns to her first love of theater, as she adapts Chapter 7 of the Steinbeck classic for a dramatic presentation at the Stonington Opera House.

“It was an initial shock to so many of us that the recession was going to be as deep and as vicious as it was. The bottom just fell out,” Shetterly said. “Businesses closed, and middle-class families were on the street. There was a mass exodus from California, and Dan and I ended up becoming those people.”

Shetterly will direct Sedgwick actor Bob Burke in a one-person adaptation of an excerpt from “The Grapes of Wrath.” It will be presented with a discussion about poverty in the United States as part of a program at the opera house called The Living Room Project.


Panelists will include representatives of food banks and other social-service providers. They will watch the performance with the audience, and respond to issues raised in the work.

Chapter 7 of “The Grapes of Wrath” is an anomaly in the context of the larger book. Steinbeck breaks from his narrative about the Joads, and presents a monologue from a used-car salesman who knowingly sells broken-down cars to desperate people headed west. He knows the cars won’t make it, and knows he’s stealing money from people who have nothing.

Shetterly saw the chapter as a sad metaphor for the American Dream, and a relevant topic for today’s theater.

Several years ago, Shetterly directed the Portland-based Winter Harbor Theater Company, which tackled topical, current-event issues. She sees this work as an extension of her earlier theater enterprise.

“This is my first step back into the theater world, which is where my heart is and where I feel the most passionate,” said Shetterly, who also is working on her second book.

Linda Nelson, executive director of Opera House Arts, the programming wing of the opera house, said the goal of the evening is to use the performance to create community dialogue. The play, which will last about 30 minutes, and the post-production discussion follow a day-long student symposium Friday that will include workshops, discussions and performances related to the novel and its themes of poverty, economics, history and migration.


This is the 75th anniversary of the publication of “The Grapes of Wrath,” Nelson noted.

“Steinbeck’s novel, and in particular this chapter on the used car salesman selling jalopies to the Dust Bowl migrants, is a brilliant exposition of how people facing food, housing, and other insecurities are perceived and treated in our culture,” Nelson said in a statement. “Its language and content are as relevant today as they were 75 years ago.”

Shetterly hopes the play and related programming help bring focus to economic issues facing families like hers and others across Maine and across the country.

“Poverty is far-reaching,” she said. “We want to believe things are getting better and that we are rebounding from the recession. But the reality is, more families like mine have to do more things just to survive. There is more pressure on us to do many things to squeeze a life together to support our children. The cost to do that is enormous. People are feeling squeezed, and dreams are far away.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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