By Rebecca Kleinhaut
Upon discovering that the Department of Theatre Arts was going to be performing The Grapes of Wrath, I was a bit worried. The technological prowess of Frank Galati’s adaptation of the beloved John Steinbeck novel calls for, among other things, a moving stage. However, it was amazing how quickly I was able to forgive (and forget) the lack of this one mechanized component when faced with the combination of impressive stage effects and heart-wrenching performances.
In his program notes, director Nick Mangano stated, “Economy and bigotry have always been linked.” This is the case with the Joads, a ravaged family of “Okies” attempting to make their way to California during the 1930’s Dust Bowl. The audience is presented with a family that could, in modern times, be easily classified as “white trash”: each actor successfully imitated the heavy Oklahoma accent, and when Tom Joad reunites with his family after three years in prison, all anybody can ask him is if he “busted out.” However, while the accents initially sound campy to a 21st century northeastern audience, Galati’s play (and Mangano’s adaptation) showcases the traditional family drama of which modern playgoers are so fond. Tom (Dan O’Reilly) attempts to quell his over-stimulated temper for the sake of his family, while Al (Alex Geissbuhler) chases girls and Ma Joad (Danielle Guidi) attempts to school Rose of Sharon (Jillian Cross), her pregnant daughter, on the importance of responsibility.
The Grapes of Wrath fits nicely in the classification of “family drama,” yet I cannot allow it to fall into this stereotypically dry category. The play successfully moves beyond the emotional hardship of a typically dysfunctional family and unabashedly deals with “economic bigotry.” Although there was not a weak performance within the Ensemble and the Joad family, it was impossible not to feel the intense restraint behind Dan O’Reilly’s tight-lipped portrayal of Tom Joad. Former preacher Jim Casey also provided some much-needed optimism, and Antoine Jones’ wide-eyed portrayal had, by the close of the play, brought tears to my eyes.
If one had to choose a protagonist, it would be Tom, and Mangano’s version of the play nicely pays homage to this distinction; however, for me, it has always been the women that have provided the most gut-wrenching narrative to the play. Who cannot help but become choked up as the normally severe Ma Joad lovingly caresses the possessions in her cigar box of memories, or when she allows only a few sobs to escape as she says goodbye to one of her sons? Even the initially naïve Rose of Sharon exudes strength by the close of the play. It is ultimately the women who must nurture an otherwise barren world, and actresses Jillian Cross and Danielle Guidi as the female Joads give impressive performances of strength and femininity.
As for the stage effects and props, the show was not without impressive lighting and weather effects; the technical crew astounded the audience with rain, a technique that is rarely seen in larger budget shows. Even the lack of a movable stage was counterbalanced nicely as members of the Joad party moved the car around manually. Combined with the live guitarist, bassist, fiddler and banjo player, the few less-technological effects highlighted the economic reality of the setting.
At the beginning of the play, Jim Casey tells Tom, “Maybe all men got one big soul everyone’s a part of.” Hopeful? You bet. Impossible? Not according to The Grapes of Wrath, nor the cast and crew who wonderfully play homage to this idea.
The Grapes of Wrath: Performances run through Sunday, May 4, in Staller Center, Theater One.