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Anyone who has read the John Steinbeck classic, “The Grapes of Wrath,” knows why it won the Pulitzer Prize. The richness of the language paints pictures of grandeur and misery. Its images sear into the brain. Even revised and (thanks to the Hayes Office) bowlerized for the movies, its power was palpable.
To the delight of any fan of the book, the Tony-winning stage adaptation by Frank Galati, at least in the hands of director Michael Michetti, manages some of that same magic. Now at A Noise Within, the episodic tale uses a versatile ensemble, the folk tunes of the period, and a series of facile set pieces to give a style and flow which mirror the novel’s river of words.
The result is a treasure of understated theatricality, and a powerful lesson on intolerance and tenacity.
By now, the story is a part of America’s DNA. Based on research Steinbeck did for a factual newspaper series, the story follows the Joad family, sharecroppers uprooted from their Oklahoma farm by the onset of the Dust Bowl and the invention of the tractor. They head to the California of the Great Depression to look for farm work, where they join the ocean of the poor and displaced.
The Joads face intolerance and violence, must often work for too little pay to eat on, and see their sense of themselves reworked. And yet, at its core, and even as its members drift apart, there is a sense of eventual triumph. “We’re the people that live,” says Ma Joad. Somehow you know they will.
Deborah Strang is Ma: sad, practical and stoic. Lindsey Ginter is Pa, a man adrift, increasingly unable to make decisions with any sense of command. Josh Clark makes Uncle John a sad, struggling figure with a sense of poetry. Lili Fuller is the pregnant Rose of Sharon, and Andrew Hellenthal is young Al Joad, both of whom seem unaware of the dire nature of their situation.
Jesse Peri plays Rose of Sharon’s husband Connie as an impractical whiner, and Mark Jacobson gives the mentally challenged eldest Joad son, Noah, a certain kind of dignity which makes his final decisions feel almost sensible. Ranya Jaber and Nicholas Neve have a lovely time as the youngest Joads, finding everything which comes at them an adventure. Jill Hill and Gary Ballard have brief but memorable parts as the grandparents, for whom displacement is just too much to bear.
Yet, the performances one remembers most are Steve Coombs, who plays the paroled Tom Joad like a bundle of barely repressed fire, and Matt Gottlieb, whose Rev. Casy has the calm, philosophical attitude which provides balance to all that raw emotion. They are joined by an ensemble of performers and musicians who flesh out the story in clever and sometimes surprising ways.
Of special note is Melissa Ficociello’s modular and mobile set, which uses very few pieces, rearranged, to create a remarkable number of places. Most particularly, the Model A truck forged from family possessions is a work of art, allowing the important sense of motion without overwhelming the stage. Garry Lennon’s costumes reflect a strong sense of time period and class.
In a story which can be grim, pacing is ferociously important. Under Michetti’s sense of what becomes virtual choreography, the mobility of the set, the liveliness of the onstage musicians, and the facile nature of the set pieces keep a flow going. Finally, the novel’s stark and startling ending proves just as powerful a statement onstage as it did in print – something I wasn’t sure was possible.
“The Grapes of Wrath” was hugely important in its time period. Now, as the debate over immigration and the fate of farm workers continues, in this state filled with farm hand-work, it becomes a powerful reminder of the dignity of the individual. Which, after all, is the most important thing Steinbeck was after, symbolism and poetry notwithstanding.
In short, go see this powerful piece. Go early, if you can, to hear a live concert of folk songs and protest songs of the era, sung by the cast’s collection of musicians.
What: “The Grapes of Wrath” When: Through May 11, 8 p.m. selected Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. selected Sundays, with 2 p.m. matinees selected Saturdays and Sundays, in repertory with two other plays, “Eurydice,” opening March 9, and “The Beaux’ Stratagem” opening March 30. Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 – $52 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org