THE GRAPES OF WRATHBy John Steinbeck
Play adaptation by Frank Galati
Original music by Michael Smith
Directed by Terry Martin
Assistant Director - Kelsey Ervi
Set Designer - Chris Pickart
Costume Designer - Barbara Cox
Lighting Designer - Leann Ellis
Music Director - Sonny Franks
Properties Designer - Gillian Salerno-Rebic
Fight/Dance Choreographer - Sara Romersberger
Dramaturg - Vicki Cheatwood
Stage Manager - Luisa Ann Torres
CAST in order of appearance, and for this performance:
Steven Pounders - Jim Casy
Cameron Cobb - Tom Joad
Arvin Combs - Pa Joad
Stephanie Dunnam - Ma Joad
Carolyn Wickwire - Granma Joad
Dennis West - Grampa Joad
Jason Johnson-Spinos - Noah Joad
Hannah Plemons - Ruthie
Stan Graner - Uncle John
Miles Shickman - Winfield #1
Mikaela Krantz - Rose of Sharon
Austin Tindle - Connie Rivers
Conner Wedgeworth - Al Joad
Porcia Bartholomae, Shane Beeson, Noelle Fabian, Sonny Franks,
Andrew Kasten, Robert Long, Jeff McGee, Chris Messersmith,
Stuart Charles Neef, Alan Pollard, Mary-Margaret Pyeatt, Van Quattro, Will Singleton, Liam M. Taylor, Sasha Truman, Ted Wold - Ensemble
Sonny Franks - Guitar, Mandolin, Vocals
Dennis Bailey - Guitar, Banjo, Vocals
Sara Bollinger - Double Bass
Michelle Feldman - Fiddle, Vocal
Reviewed Performance: 4/8/2013
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Before the play by Frank Galati, came of course the novel and film. A bit of artistic and political background helps underscore the significance of this work. John Steinbeck grew up in the Salinas Valley of California, a place rich in its history of migrants and immigrants. He wrote of the people of this area many times in short stories and novels, so his vision for The Grapes of Wrath was not unfamiliar to him. In the summer of 1936, he was hired to write for The San Francisco News. Traveling through the valley, he witnessed the aftermath of the devastation of the Great Plains; his assignments and notes would later be the influence for The Grapes of Wrath. Makeshift camps, called "Hoovervilles", set up with unsanitary conditions and no clean water.
Families were forced to live in ramshack shelters of trash and metal, abandoned box cars or ditches. And as so many people had come to work in fields that only needed laborers a short time when the crops were ready, hundreds of thousands were left stranded with no source of income, no means of finding food or shelter, and little assets to make their way back "home".
Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in "a successful burst" within 5 month in 1939. The title came from the Battle Hymn of the Republic - "He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored". And, as might be expected, that image served as a symbol in both the plot and the novel's thematic concerns: from oppression will come wrath but also deliverance, though not within the confines of his story.
Steinbeck's novel was published in April 1939 and won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1940. And here is where it gets interesting. Only one week after the novel was published, it was announced that Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century Fox had purchased the film rights to the novel. One week. Zanuck had sent undercover investigators to the migrant camps to see if Steinbeck was exaggerating about the conditions and unfair treatment.
He soon discovered that, in some incidences, "Steinbeck had actually downplayed what went on in the camps". It was also rumored that a studio financier had ordered Zanuck to purchase the rights to prevent it from being produced at all " it being a controversial subject matter, and a political nightmare for our then President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the film went into production almost immediately and was given its premiere on January 24, 1940, just nine months after the contract was signed, and while the novel was still a national best-seller, an unheard of event and extraordinarily short time for a major production. The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell as Ma).
Obviously, the keen interest in both the story and subject matter was running high during that time. Think of it - a novel and a film made for the reading and viewing during the same time that the events were actually taking place in our country - extraordinary. All in which made me wonder why it took until 1985 for the play to be commissioned and then written, being adapted by Frank Galati of Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
It finally opened at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago in September 1988, moved to the La Jolla Playhouse in California in May, 1989, had a stint in London in June 1989, and finally made it to Broadway, premiering at the Cort Theatre in March, 1990. It was also directed by Frank Galati. The production won Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Direction and Best Adaptation.
Set during the Great Depression, the story centers on the Joad family, three generations of tenant farmers driven from Oklahoma and headed west with other "Okies", as the Californians labeled them, whether from Oklahoma or not.
While the action has the family slowly traveling across country, it is the people they meet along the way that is the heart of the story. People, alone or with others, who have been displaced and scattered, like so much seed thrown by the wayside, left to wither or be blown away by the wind. The Grapes of Wrath lends a powerful message on how human beings treat, or become forced to treat, each other. It's about how much pain, hardship, despair and degradation the human heart can endure. It is a classic tale of the human spirit, of survival, and the power of family.
With a cast of almost thirty, the play is not often produced due to financial constraints, but WaterTower Theatre's Artistic Director, Terry Martin, found both personal beliefs and the parallels between the story and today's current issues more than enough reason to mount such an epic production. In his playbill notes, Martin writes of the correlation between the displaced of that time period and the "disturbing anti-immigrant sentiment present today".
He said "the characters spoke to me on a deep spiritual level and the faces in the depression era photos by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans called out to me to be honored and remembered". And with whatever inner promise Martin made to those people, those faces in the photos, with his direction of WaterTower's production of The Grapes of Wrath, his promise was certainly kept.
The creative vision by Set Designer Chris Pickart, seen upon entering the theatre proper, set the entire aura of the play's emotional content. Simple in its complexity, and with fog slowly wafting in from above, the stage area was opened wide with panels of gapping and broken slats and a middle opening for the back wall, which could represent barn, box car, camp shelter, anything.
As a proscenium of sorts, a three-beamed arch with another arch mid-stage, were set off-kilter; tilted in different directions so that the eyes and equilibrium were off-balanced, as though the characters were no longer grounded to the earth, which indeed these people no longer were. The faded white-planked flooring fell away on the downstage edges, and dropped off to full stage-width steps to the theatre floor. A small half wall and window were set far down stage left. For so many scene locations, the entire staging area was well-defined and utilized. The crowning set piece was the full-size movable jalopy truck the Joads used on their exodus.
I believe most entirely made of wood, it "rolled" and was pushed into various directions along the journey, lit from inside the cab to illuminate actors or turned around when they were seated in the truck's bed. Other set pieces and properties by Gillian Salerno-Rebic were simple and well-used in every scene. Small barrels, crates, wood boxes - all painted a dull steel gray - made for seating along the way. Items taken off the truck such as old quilts, suitcases, a clothes line rope, basket of sewing materials, kitchen and eating utensils, a stuffed toy, all spoke of the little things it takes to make a home. And the taking out and packing up of all these pieces and props for the various scenes and locations, and even the moving around of the truck, made each flow effortlessly so there really were no "set changes" at all, just people moving on once again.
Lighting and sound became a subtle yet powerful force in this production. Leann Ellis' design often included dim lighting, and with the fog settling down onto the stage, it lent an off-putting factor to the scenes, as though the places were not quite right and shouldn't be stayed in. Other times, such as the journey across the desert, Ellis chose the harshness of stark white LEDs for the essence of heat. It won't be a spoiler to say that Grampa Joad dies, and his burial into the trapdoor downstage was "honored" when, after they closed the lid and the lights faded, a rectangular-shaped light was left where he laid - such simplicity and so touching. Images of fire, rain, a sky full of stars, and flood water rising were projected on the various walls and floor, all to great effect.
Only by thinking back on the play did I remember the many sound effects that helped tell the play's story. Some were effective and some not quite as much. The houselights went down to the sound of wind, that relentless dust-filled wind that first forced the Joads to travel on. The family reaches the Colorado River, and the sounds of splashing water as they jumped in or splashed each other was strange and unnecessary in this instance, as the actors' movements were more effective than any sound could create. The same for the firing of a large shotgun which sounded more like a cannon; I'd rather it had come from the prop itself than an artificial boom. During the flood, the sound of a tree cracking and falling was startling, as was the running of fast moving water - both lent appropriate tension to the scene, making the idea of being caught up in it all the more terrifying.
Costuming became an important feature in telling The Grapes of Wrath story. The ensemble enacts the many people that crossed paths with the Joads, but a complete change of costume would be too time consuming, so Designer Barbara Cox ingeniously added a wider brim hat, a bonnet, an apron on or off, and hair up or down to quickly change characters, and the effect was spot on. Colors were faded, fabric was wrinkled, loose dresses and shirts were worn thin. Men wore overalls, dungarees or cotton pants. Older women wore low heel shoes while the younger ladies clung to their Mary Jane pumps with white anklets, out of place for working in the fields but a lingering bit of feminity.
Ms. Cox visually differentiated the three generations of the Joad women by having Granma wear a most restrictive flap bonnet close to her face, Ma in simple loose dress with hair braided and wrapped around her head, and young Rose of Sharon with hair loose, and dress of faded pink and white.
Music was an integral part of the lives of the displaced migrants - both to express their feelings and as a way to unite the people in the cause for a better life. They sang songs that spoke of their condition or about the disregard of the government; some were written down and some just passed on as people moved from camp to camp, farm to farm. Many of those songs live on today, the most famous songwriter being Woody Guthrie. He was the quiet master at rallying the people to their plight and for saying the things others feared to. His first commercial recording, in 1940, was called Dust Bowl Ballads.
In the original production, Michael Smith wrote songs that exemplify that time period. Though the script does not have songs attached, WaterTower Theatre used Smith's music, and the songs were equally as important in telling the story as the acting was. Using guitars, fiddle, double bass, mandolin, banjo and harmonica, they became a narrator of sorts, singing the "Dust Bowl Blues", playing the "Hooverville Waltz" at the camp dance, or of Route "66", the highway that was "the path of people in flight". Using music instead of the sound of an engine, the song beginning, fading away and then playing again, was a clever way to imitate the sound of the truck starting up.
In most every play or musical, even with a large cast, there are always roles that are the leads, the main character. In The Grapes of Wrath adaptation, this was not the case.
Each had equal importance in the telling of the story. Besides the ensemble, there are eleven members of the Joad family, a new husband and a former preacher man. Some stay in the story only a short while and others are onstage for most every scene. But the cast remained a whole unit.
Director Terry Martin staged the actors to carry on business in the background or far downstage during scene dialogue; moving things, coming in or going out, silently conversing or working. There was hardly a time when it was just one or two people onstage. The idea was to always have people around - people on the road, people in the camps, people huddled together, and waiting for a chance to work - with nowhere to be alone. In keeping with the simplicity of the set, he also staged some of the action to be mimed - shoveling with no dirt, jumping and splashing water where there was none. All were beautifully handled and expertly delivered.
In casting for the Joad family, Martin chose very well, but a few actors physically did not fit the roles. Pa, Ma and Grampa Joad were too agile and energetic playing these characters. These were people of the land, worn out by hard work and circumstance. You have to remember that, though they married and had children while very young, they were old by their 40's and most didn't live much past their 50's or 60's. Dennis West made a fine, cantankerous Grampa, though; set in his ways and unwilling to change. Equally as ornery was Granma Joad, as played by Carolyn Wickwire. Though not in many scenes, she showed the fear in Granma's eyes at the thought of leaving her birthplace, and appeased herself by shouting Bible verse.
Both Pa Joad and Uncle John are broken men - Pa by losing his dignity at the loss of his livelihood and Uncle John by drink after being responsible for the loss of his wife. Arvin Combs played Pa in the quiet fashion of a man who has given up inside. Though fairly tall, Combs seemed small in comparison to the others - such was this man who was so lost that he let his wife take the lead. Stan Graner played Uncle John as if he were two separate people - the ever helpful, demure man, and then the remorseful drunkard who hated who he was but had no power to stop himself. Towering over the other actors, Graner's presence onstage was as visually unsettling as was his character.
The older Joad children, Noah, Tom, Rose of Sharon and Al, all saw their lives and their plight from completely different standpoints. The youngest of these, Al, made sure his time was spent with girls or cars, and life was to be explored. Conner Wedgeworth played the smart-aleck sixteen-year-old with equal exuberance.
But he also showed Al's eventual realization of the world around him, transitioning him to be older than his years allowed. Rose of Sharon, on the other hand, hadn't a clue of the world around her. She is childish for an eighteen-year-old, with unrealistic dreams of her future with her husband and soon to be child. Mikaela Krantz portrayed the bratty Rose of Sharon with coquettish voice and a toss of hair. But, just like Al, her character had to grow up too soon and Krantz flowed into that maturity gracefully, with a change in body language and vocal tone.
Noah is the oldest son, and having been injured at birth, is now left with learning and some speaking difficulties. Noah is full of natural wisdom but keeps most of it to himself. Jason Johnson-Spinos beautifully portrayed this peaceful man. His speech patterns were realistic, and his body movements were sometimes awkward, giving away the child still caught inside the older young man.
I appreciated that Johnson-Spinos did not make Noah tragic or make his "differences" become the action. Second son Tom Joad is our Everyman in the story, the one who is always thinking, always defending his family, always moving forward, even if only in his mind. Cameron Cobb was so entrenched into Tom you could fairly see the wheels spinning in his head. He never overplayed the role by being too brave or heroic. Tom is a man with many flaws and many fears, and Cobb used those to keep Tom on a more subdued level, only rising in momentum when it was called for. I liked his simmering intensity, as if he were a caged animal unable to get free. Tom's famous exit monologue is full of emotion and could easily be a final grandstand. Thankfully, Cobb spoke as one who is trying to convince himself that what he is saying might actually happen - it was from the heart, deeply moving and so much more meaningful.
Ma Joad, by her husband's reluctance, is forced to become the head of the household. She is the one who passionately, but unsuccessfully, tries to keep her family together. She is the matriarch whom everyone goes to for comfort and advice, and Stephanie Dunnam played her with grace and the wisdom of the ages. Small in stature, Dunnam reigned mighty large onstage, and your eyes always gravitated towards her. In a role where the character has to demand attention in order to get things done , it could lean towards shrewishness, but Dunnam balanced the character well, and even Ma's sternest moments with her family were tempered and precise. Dunnam gave a performance worthy of the beauty of the role.
Evangelical religion took an upswing during the years of The Great Depression, The Dust Bowl, and the flight west. People flocked to the churches and revivals, assuming the end of the world must surely be coming. Preachers roamed the country, bringing the word to the masses, and Jim Casy is just such a man. Calling himself a former preacher, he still philosophizes and speaks from the Bible. A man no more sinful than another, Casy spends his days in penance, loving his fellow man but unable receive love in return. At one point, he says to no one in particular, "The whole country is empty". I believe he was aiming that more towards himself than to the world.
Steven Pounders wore this man's clothes like a glove. His easy body language, his strong, unhurried manner and voice, and his demeanor deftly portrayed this charismatic man of God. Moving easily between self-assured cockiness and self-abhorrence, Pounders made this flawed character likeable and to be admired, a wonderful acting gesture indeed.
The Grapes of Wrath is not a story with a happy ending. There is no sudden resolution, no quick turn of events, no closing chapter. The final scene, however, is a possible new chapter, one of rebirth and regrowth, and unfortunately is the only scene in this production that did not work. The ending is powerful in its understanding, in its visual and its meaning. Here, the scene was unclear, rushed and visually underplayed, leaving the audience both confused and unsatisfied. It is an easy fix and one that I hope will be reexamined and revised.
This entire production envelopes your heart and soul like a warm quilt. The action flows naturally and the characters are so realistic you could believe they were your own relations from that tragic period in our country's history. And maybe they were - I know they were like members of my family. And even if they weren't, they were human beings on this earth.
In his curtain speech, Martin said, "When we as a society forget that each of us is a human being. . . ." And as his words trailed off, I thought that surely this would be the story to again remind us not to forget . . . and I believe I was right.
Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison, TX 75001
Plays through April 28th
Wednesday-Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00pm,
and Sunday at 2:00 pm.
Tickets are $20.00 - $40.00
For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.watertowertheatre.org or call their box office at 972-450-6232.