[Sidebar] June 14 - 21, 2001
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Well-wrought Wrath

SFGT delivers a solid take on Steinbeck's Joads

by Bill Rodriguez

THE GRAPES OF WRATH. By John Steinbeck, adapted by Frank Galati. Directed by Peter Sampieri. With Anthony Estrella, Nigel Gore, Sandra Laub, and Jim O'Brien. At the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre through July 8.

John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath is the kind of tale that the Pulitzer committee has always prized, a family saga that leads us into the heart of the American experience. It's also the sort of journey story that the stage loves, a trek out of the Oklahoma dust bowl in the Depression, with encounters and personal discoveries lining the trail like mile markers.

The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre is mounting a captivating production of the adaptation by Steppenwolf Theatre's Frank Galati, for which he garnered two Tonys in 1990.

The adaptation is a skillful one, weaving together two threads that run through the thick novel: spiritual -- but not religious -- humanism, and labor injustices that affect and motivate the migrant worker characters. The novel came out at the culmination of the New Deal, when legislation such as Social Security was struggling to make permanent the recovery programs enacted mid-decade.

But this story is not agitprop by any means. The Joads may be icons of American mythology -- the first heroic poor people in our literature -- yet they certainly are flesh and blood as depicted. The bank has sent a tractor to knock over the family home on their foreclosed farm, pushing them into a stream of 100,000 others likewise evicted. The play opens with an emblematic narrated image: dust like fog finally settling, men looking off into it, and women coming out to see "if this time they would break."

As we begin, Tom Joad (Anthony Estrella) has just been released on parole after four years for killing a man who knifed him in a bar fight. The first neighbor he encounters is a living metaphor: Muley (Andrew E. Morisette) says he has been wandering homeless "like a graveyard ghost" on the family farmland that holds the blood of his father, gored to death by a bull. When Tom shows up, he surprises his family and friends on the eve of their departure.

Pa Joad (Jim O'Brien) presides over a disparate clan with Ma (Sandra Laub), who is the bedrock keeping them all stable. Grandpa (Paul Scharf) is less patriarch than comic relief, a joking sort who with Grandma (Enedina Garcia) reminds them all that life still can be joyful. Uncle John (F. William Oakes) is too hard on himself. Brother Noah (Joshua Allen) is slow-witted but sweet, and 16-year-old brother Al (Jim Bray) is as randy as a stoat. Sister Rose of Sharon (Kelly Seigh) is pregnant from Connie Rivers (Ethan Vlah), and both are as hopeful of their prospects as any immigrant who has heard that California streets are paved with gold.

Setting the tone and articulating the plight of these displaced folks is Jim Casey (Nigel Gore), who the family agrees to take along even though they already lack enough food and space in the truck. He used to be a preacher but felt too sinful to tell people what to do. His Christian love has broadened into a sort of New Age fellow-feeling, only meaningful. He observes that "mankind's holy when it's one thing," summing up the novel and its pro-union, Woody Guthrie-esque ethos.

The troupe discovers that those Oklahoma flyers touting plenty of jobs picking fruit are a scam. The idea is to attract thousands to particular farms so that the hundreds actually needed grab at starvation piecework -- a dollar to pick and pack a ton of peaches, in one case. It all culminates in a strike fomented by Casey and a hard-earned education by Tom that changes his life.

A small onstage band, with obligatory banjo, enhances the action with background music and the occasional song, both period works and original compositions by David J. Tessier.

This is all directed with energy and varied pace by Trinity Conservatory student Peter Sampieri. For such a bare-bones staging I could have used a few more guiding theatrical touches, like the laden passers-by walking backwards to indicate the Joads' truck jouncing forward. With a subject that brings sweeping vistas to mind, a black box production is not optimum. Although there is a prop truck for them all to clamber onto, it lacks more than tokens of the piled-up possessions necessary to complete the image. The solid performances on display here deserved the sort of scenic backdrops and evocative visuals that are prohibitively expensive for a small company. Nevertheless, SFGT's take on The Grapes of Wrath is an involving experience well worth enjoying.

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