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|A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Grapes of Wrath
by Laura Hitchcock
The centennial of John Steinbeck's birth is an appropriate year to revive Frank Galati's award-winning adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, the searing story of an American family's forced migration from Oklahoma to California in 1938. Claudia Jaffee has assembled an exceptional cast for her production at the West Coast Ensemble. She has found actors of all ages and types, imbuing the play with a universal quality that enhances its odyssey, and deployed them with vivid effectiveness on the theatre's small stage.
Not for nothing has Steinbeck opened his story with Preacher Jim Casy who has lost his faith when he decides to accompany the Joad family on their desperate journey. The spiritual underpinning remains constant, however, when Casy goes to jail in place of young Tom Joad, so the latter's striking back at a bullying policeman won't send him back to jail where he served four years for killing another bully in self-defense. And it's Casy again who takes the part of the starving laborers in a fatal attempt to wrest a living wage from the fruit-growers. His death is the catalyst for Tom's final departure and also for Tom's decision to follow in his footsteps.
Though not a conventionally religious man, the spiritual imagery of that American age is absorbed by Steinbeck's writing. If you see the play as a hero's journey, there are many heroes besides Casy and Tom. There's Ma Joad, who holds her family together. In one of her most poignant scenes, she burns a box of family pictures and letters. We never know who they were but we can tell they are the heart of her heart. Rose of Sharon, her daughter, drags her heavily pregnant body out of the dustbowl with the boundless optimism of youth and closes the show with the unforgettable act of giving her dead baby's breast milk to a starving man. It's staged like the famous Pieta of Mary holding Jesus when he is taken down from the cross.
The play is a little too verbose but some of Steinbeck's best writing is here. Frank Galati, who won two Tonys in 1990 for his adaptation and direction of this work, used both Tom's speech from Nunally Johnson's 1940 screenplay and the Pieta scene from Steinbeck's book for the play's finale.
Johnson includes Steinbeck's words in Tom's final monologue when he bids farewell to his mother, saying, as Casy said, he is part of "a big soul that belongs to everybody. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. And when the people are eating stuff they raise and living in houses they build themselves, I'll be there." It's a literary ending but, in a very true sense, wherever the Joads are, we'll be there. This story and these people hold the stage from the beginning of their heartbreaking, tragic and inspiring story.
The excellent ensemble includes Robert Gantzos as a Tom Joad fired in steel; Crystal Jackson, as a powerfully maternal Ma Joad; John Marzilli as Preacher Casy, the half-crazed faithless preacher who never loses his love of his fellow men - and women; Michael Spellman as a testosterone-fueled Al, a born survivor; Dan Capp in a fine performance as the retarded Noah; Larry Lederman as Pa Joad; Paul Kimmel and Dalene Young as Grandpa and Grandma Joad; Kelly Ann Ford in a delicate devastating performance as Rose of Sharon; Brent McEwan as her handsome husband Connie who breaks out ahead of the pack. In smaller roles there are particularly impressive characterizations by Lou Wagner as Uncle John and Andrew Morris in the dual roles of Muley Graves and Floyd Knowles.
The small stage with a huge wagon depicting the car is evocatively designed by Evan A. Bartoletti, complemented by Lisa D. Katz's lighting design and Diana Eden's costumes. Don Cummings designed and spearheaded the haunting folk music and ensemble.
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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