The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath

Based on the novel by John Steinbeck
Adapted by Frank Gilati
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Performed by Tom McCamus, Evan Buliung, Chilina Kennedy, Janet Wright, et al.
Avon Theatre, Stratford
April 23 to October 29, 2011
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Dark and Depressing

The Grapes of Wrath is an epic tale of the Great Depression. John Steinbeck’s novel about poverty and what it forces people to do is dismally shocking. Perhaps today’s difficult economic times make the story even more significant.

The Joad family is beaten down by the Depression. They lose the farm, literally to the dust bowl and later to the bank. Their share-croppers home is tractored (read demolished) and they decide to head west. They see printed flyers saying that jobs picking fruit are plentiful in California. Young Tom Joad gets released from jail and meets up with Jim Casy, a former preacher who has lost his calling. The two arrive just in time to make the trip with the family.

But the trip is a disaster, death travels with them. When they arrive in California along with thousands of others, they find no jobs. The misery continues to the play’s startling conclusion, where there is only a slight hint of hope for humankind.

But while the dreadfulness of poverty translates from novel to stage, the journey does not. The first act moves slowly, like the old truck (loaded up Beverley Hillbillies style) circling the stage again and again. Just when the turning truck becomes really tiresome, they come upon a river and Tom, with his brothers Al and Noah jump in – and there right on stage is deep water, refreshing both the cast and the audience with this dynamic surprise.

Tom McCamus is excellent as the laid back ex-preacher Jim Casey. His philosophies hold the audience’s interest, and he creates some optimism when he becomes a union organizer fighting on behalf of the itinerant fruit pickers.

Chick Reid as Granma and Ian D. Clark as Grandpa offer some humour, but both die during the journey. Evan Buliung is good as Tom, and the interaction between the brothers Al (Paul Nolan), and Noah (Steve Ross) is well done, with each having distinct personalities.

Chilina Kennedy is perfect as Rose of Sharon, the spoiled sister who refuses to accept reality and assumes things will always go her way. She doesn’t comprehend her husband Connie’s (Josh Young) inability to share her day-dreams, and can’t accept it when he leaves her, late in her pregnancy.

Ma is supposed to be the strong character holding the family together, but unfortunately Janet Wright’s monotone voice and flatness doesn’t always convey that strength. Victor Ertmanis as Pa simply fades away, as he is supposed to, and Wright needs to demonstrate that she is taking on his responsibilities.

The hillbilly singers between acts seem to slow the plot. While they serve the purpose of occupying the audience while sets are being changed, I’m not sure they add to the message.

The Grapes of Wrath on stage is very dark – both figuratively and literally. If this play fails to evoke the pathos that the novel achieves, it is because the actors spend most of their time shrouded in darkness. Unless audience members can see the actors’ facial expressions or at least catch a glimpse of their eyes, it’s difficult to really become involved in their feelings.

This production of The Grapes of Wrath has moments – there are some laughs, and there are some heart-rending scenes. But to really grasp Steinbeck’s story, you may be better off reading the novel.

The Grapes of Wrath continues at the Avon Theatre, Stratford until October 29. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-567-1600 or check www.stratfordshakespearefestival.ca.

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