The Grapes of Wrath at Western Stage has some very good performances, but overall it lacks punch.
Thursday, August 12, 1999
Though flawed and overly long at three hours, however, Steinbeck''s story is still there, the characters are still there, and the humanity is still there. If you truly love The Grapes of Wrath this production, directed by Jon Patrick Selover, can still be a rewarding experience.
The Grapes of Wrath tells the tale of the Joad family''s trek from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression. Drought and economic hard times spelled ruin for many family farms, and an entire segment of society, a people, once proud, productive, upright and strong were forced off their lands, becoming a mass exodus of wayward vagabonds.
Tom Joad, the clan''s elder son, coming home from a stint in state prison for killing a man in a fight, finds the farm in foreclosure, his family gone, run off by the bank, and the family farmhouse bulldozed. He finds himself a trespasser on land he once called home.
He meets up with Rev. Jim Casy, a former fire-and-brimstone preacher whose faith has evolved away from traditional church teachings. They join the rest of the Joad family in a decrepit old jalopy on a perilous cross-country drive. They become one of thousands of families in the great "Okie" migration, lured west by dreams of wealth, abundant work and a better life in the lush, green fields of California.
But along the way the Joad family, torn from its roots, and meeting one hardship after another, begins to disintegrate, leaving very little of their dreams intact.
At the center of the Joad family is Ma, whose bedrock values and strong and indomitable fortitude never waver in the face of ever-mounting setbacks and tragedies. She is the heart of Steinbeck''s story, which is about the triumph of humanity over adversity. The story''s final image is enduring and powerful as a testament to mankind''s ultimate goodness.
The Galati stage adaptation used by Western Stage received rave reviews and two Tony awards when it played in 1990 on Broadway. But whatever quality made it such a hit in New York is apparently missing here. This production is dull, too long and almost entirely unengrossing.
The script is talky, the pacing slow; not ponderous, but torpid, like an overly affected mimicking of the slower rhythms of the Okie mannerisms and dialect. The realistic staging (including a real rainstorm, an actual jalopy, and a cast of 40 extras), instead of engaging us, effectively distances us from the human drama of the story. We never connect as we should with the characters and their struggles because the closer, more intimate moments are largely swallowed up by it.
The production includes some folksy musical interludes which, while pleasant in themselves, seem sometimes jarringly out of context and, at best, only bring the general flatness of the rest of the production into sharper relief.
The production is enhanced, however, by some very good performances. Donna Federico as Ma captures the right blend of sternness and compassion. Richard Courtney''s Pa shows the fraying nerves of a strong man beset by too many ills. As Tom, Micah Epstein got off to a bad start as too strident, mostly shouting his lines. He soon settles in and we see Tom''s inner journey through bewilderment and anger to final realization.
Joe Yedlicka as Casy is likeable and sympathetic. Casy is a complex character, though, with many inner demons that the actor could have explored more fully. Wendi Bergamini as Rose of Sharon is appropriately hysterical, and Richard Lockie is sweet and endearing as the feeble-minded Noah.
The Grapes of Wrath closes this Sunday at The Western Stage at Hartnell College in Salinas. See Listings for details.