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
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.