Frank Galati is still slightly stunned.

Last month in New York -- after what was universally acclaimed as the best Broadway season in years -- the tall, 46-year-old, bespectacled and slightly rumpled professor of literature walked away with two of the top Tony Awards for his adaptation of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath": Best Director and Best Play.

And now he looks positively mystified when an admirer confesses to having liked the play.

"You did?" he asks with seeming disbelief.

How can he possibly be surprised?

"Every time you work in the theater, you're a little nervous about whether or not people believe it," Galati says simply. "Every time. That's part of the attraction. So it's arresting to hear someone else confirm your belief. And it's strange for a director because you're not there -- it happens without you."

Actually, maybe his reaction is not so hard to understand, because Galati -- an actor as well as author, director and professor -- just doesn't have run-of-the-mill ideas. He is the kind of guy who takes risks, who gets excited about unusual approaches to art -- the sorts of things that might make some people nod politely and say, "That sounds very interesting," before wandering off.

Surely, for example, the 1938 dust bowl travails of dispossessed Okies set against the background of a migrant musical band with mostly a truck for scenery didn't sound like the smash hit "The Grapes of Wrath" turned out to be. And -- with texts borrowed from Gertrude Stein, images lifted from Pablo Picasso and the music of Virgil Thomson and Igor Stravinsky -- "She Always Said, Pablo," the acclaimed Goodman Theatre production that has brought him to the Kennedy Center through July 22, doesn't sound like an inevitable crowd pleaser either.

But when he talks about the project, his face enlivened with excitement, his arms rapidly parting the air in front of him to make room for his expressive ideas, a listener hangs right in there with him.

Observes Gary Sinise, who plays one of the lead roles in "Grapes," "Frank is one of those gifted people whose work takes an audience into something they have never experienced before. Both 'Grapes' and 'Pablo' are experimental in nature -- you don't know what's going to bubble over. 'Grapes' is very linear, very easy to identify with. 'Pablo' is more like an incredibly beautiful puzzle where Frank has put together a collage of things that are interesting and moving to him, and he's trying to open up the audience to those things. That's our responsibility as artists -- to open people's eyes a little wider."

Indeed, "Pablo" is not a play in the ordinary sense of the word. Just over an hour-and-a-half, it is a work that Galati feels has more to do with the world of performance art than traditional theater, it has no story, no particular plot line, no character development. Its characters mix real people (Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas), impressionary renderings of real people (Picasso), characters lifted straight out of Stein's writing and a carnival troupe of figures from the paintings of early Picasso. Every word -- except for an effort at playwrighting by Picasso -- is by Stein. And the action is carried out within an almost kaleidoscopic dreamscape inspired by Picasso.

But Galati makes it clear that this experimental meshing of art forms is not at all unusual for him. In fact, that's what he does for a living. Instead of teaching literature in the conventional manner, he has his students at Northwestern University act it out. In other words, they actually adapt and perform short stories by James Joyce or Donald Barthelme, the poetry of Emily Dickinson or Dylan Thomas, the novels of Mark Twain. "I think of myself as an interpreter," Galati explains.

With that approach to theater, it made perfect sense to him to rely on the country twang of instruments such as a harmonica and a banjo to illuminate "Grapes," and the images of early Picasso to shed light on Stein's words.

"Wouldn't it be something, I thought, if Picasso's characters suddenly could move," Galati says. "What if they could break the bondage of living in the landscape he placed them in, could speak her words and dance to Virgil Thomson and Stravinsky?"

The result, he hopes, is "a vaudeville, a sideshow, a visit to a gallery at night after they lock it up and all the guards are gone."

The notion of focusing on the friendship between these two early-20th-century artistic giants -- and their common avant-garde status -- came to him almost four years ago. Stein, who not only wrote poetry and prose but also the two operas featured in "Pablo" ("Four Saints in Three Acts" and "The Mother of Us All"), particularly intrigues him.

He worries that her celebrity status as a lesbian, a wealthy Jewish art patron living in Paris, and her flamboyant lifestyle have overshadowed her importance as a writer. "Gertrude Stein is a national treasure," he explains. "Her experiments with narrative were radical, revolutionary. She was way ahead of her time."

A conversation with Galati is an encounter with a man whose whole life is propelled by his enthusiasm for literature and theater. A graduate of Northwestern, he has stayed there as a teacher for 20 years. He has been an associate director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago for the last 3 1/2 years and a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, for which he directed "Grapes," for five. He directs from two to five productions a year, not only for Goodman and Steppenwolf but also for the Chicago Opera Theater and the Lyric Opera there.

Although he admits he loves to travel, the ordinary temptations of success -- money, fame, power -- don't seem to be what motivates him. What does drive him, or at least his choices about his work, is a passionate interest in American literature and his sense of the theater as something almost divine. "I think performance is sacred," he says simply.

A down-to-earth guy, he knows that such comments can sound, well, lofty -- maybe even "a little arty-farty," he worries. But that is not his intention. Although he shies from talking about it, he speculates that "there may be in the human heart, in the human spirit, evidence of the divine," and that literature and theater offer access to that.

He points out, however, that the process of getting to the sacred has often involved invoking the profane -- or at least the iconoclastic. And while working on "Pablo," Galati became particularly interested in that aspect of Stein, Picasso and Stravinsky.

"There turns out to have been a real market appeal for images that were scandalous," he says. "Many of Picasso's friends were astonished by the 'Desmoiselles D'Avignon.' They found it deeply offensive. Now bus loads of children are taken to the Picasso Museum every day with their little workbooks making drawings of images once thought to be so sexually provocative and disturbing to the psyche that they couldn't even be pondered.

"Stravinsky's work was considered truly obscene," he continues. " 'The Rite of Spring' created a riot in 1913, but by the late 1940s, it became {part of} the score for Walt Disney's 'Fantasia.' "

(Now, ironically, as the end of the century approaches, seeing Galati's production of "Pablo" only emphasizes howStein's experiments with language and Picasso's anti-naturalistic images have become almost commonplace.)

To Galati, the risk-taking aspect of the arts is self-evident. So it's not surprising to learn that he finds the current controversy over the anti-obscenity provision imposed on recipients of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts frustrating. From where he sits, "the level of turbulence that surrounds the artist is inevitable."

Galati faced such questions head-on when he reinstituted the original end of "The Grapes of Wrath." In it, the daughter of the now-mythic Joad family, which has just barely survived the dusty trip from Oklahoma to California, gives birth to a stillborn child. There, in a barn where the Joads seek shelter from a torrential rainstorm, and amid poverty and hopelessness, she offers her milk-laden breast to a starving stranger who is too weak to eat. According to Galati, Steinbeck's version stunned the publishers. (John Ford's 1940 version of the book sidestepped the original ending, opting for what Galati describes as "sentimental optimism.")

But Galati cherishes Steinbeck's version. To him, the daughter's gesture -- although an erotic image -- is also the perfect image of maternity, and one quite different from that of "someone who calls herself Madonna, hangs a studded crucifix around her warlike breasts and asks the public to think about the nature of worship."

When asked about the impact the Tonys have made on his life, Galati says not much has changed. Mostly he is delighted about the number of people he's heard from whom he hasn't seen in years -- people like Miss Barber, his elementary school social studies teacher who now lives in Sun City, Ariz.

And he is also pleased that the awards came on the eve of a capital campaign that the Steppenwolf is undertaking to give it a permanent facility. "We've been in hovels, dives, church basements," he says of the much-praised Chicago company whose best-known members are actors John Mahoney, John Malkovich and Glenne Headley.

He doesn't know yet if -- with the Tonys behind him -- moving a Chicago production to Broadway or Los Angeles or even Washington would be any easier. "It's incredibly difficult," he laughs. "I don't think a prize is going to make it any easier to work in the future.

"And certainly appearing on Broadway represents standing on a higher precipice," he continues. "The stakes are higher."

"I may get more opportunities to fail," he says, brightening at the risk. "Because every time you go out there, you're out there on a complete limb. That's part of the excitement. That's one of the reasons why live theater is still such a thrill for audiences. There they are. They're right up there breathing the same air -- it's not a postcard from somewhere. There's a lot of danger in that. It's a high-wire act."