By Kay Kipling
Those who have only rather vague memories of John Steinbeck’s epic The Grapes of Wrath from reading the novel years ago, or from seeing the John Ford-directed film version of 1940, may find the Asolo Rep staging of Frank Galati’s Tony-winning adaptation alters what they thought they knew about this Dust Bowl classic.
Not that Galati, or director Michael Donald Edwards, have veered from the original storyline in detail (and in fact the ending is truer to the book than the movie was). Steinbeck’s tale still focuses on the Joads, that Oklahoma family who, like so many, were driven from their land by years of drought and bank foreclosures during the Great Depression (and if the loss of the family home reverberates at this particular point in our history, 75 years later, the more impact the work delivers). Forced to leave the only life they’ve known and travel hundreds of miles in search of work and hope, the family, led by the indomitable will and strength of Ma Joad (Peggy Roeder), persists despite the hardships they face.
But one thing that may surprise viewers is the humor to be found in the stage production, at least in the first half as we are meeting the characters and they are first setting off on their journey. There was little of that in the classic screen version; but while the play, like the film, often takes place in dark shadows, it is leavened by those welcome flashes of joviality.
Re-enacting the Joads’ journey deep into a struggling America, in an aging vehicle piled high with possessions and into camps inhabited by other wanderers, takes a great deal of technical prowess. Whether it’s a matter of campfires or streams popping up from underneath the stage, of convincingly rendering the violence of a fight among cops and workers, or of producing a climactic rainstorm that drenches some of the actors, The Grapes of Wrath takes a significant amount of stagecraft.
And while the cast is talented and adept, one does occasionally feel that the technical aspects of the production may keep them from fully realizing the wide range and depth of emotions required here, at least this early in the show’s run. That doesn’t mean you won’t be moved by their characters’ plight; just that you may, like them, perhaps, concentrate at times on the outer rather than the inner workings of the story.
That said, the actors are excellent, whether it’s Christian Conn as Tom, trying to keep his passions in check to avoid trouble, or Kristen Lynne Blossom as the naive, pregnant Rose of Sharon, or Asolo Rep stalwarts Douglas Jones and David Breitbarth as Pa Joad and Uncle John Joad, respectively. (Another Asolo vet, David S. Howard, has a brief but vivid appearance as the feisty Grampa Joad.) And Roeder is a standout as Ma, utterly believable as a woman determined to hold her family together no matter what.
They’re all backed and aided by a large ensemble cast that includes actors sometimes delivering brief narration and musicians providing appropriate songs under the direction of Tim Grimm. And both the scenic design (by Scott Bradley) and the costume design (by B. Modern) place us squarely in the period and the lives of these people.
This production may force you to re-examine some perceptions of The Grapes of Wrath, and that’s an ambitious and worthy undertaking. The play continues through April 19 on the mainstage; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.