In the wake of the million-plus people displaced by Hurricane Katrina and its successors, Intiman's stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning saga "The Grapes of Wrath" strikes a chord. The powerless struggling against the powerful to hold onto the shards of human dignity.
Adapted for the theater in 1988 by Frank Galati for Chicago's revered Steppenwolf Company, Steinbeck's novel was pared down to bare-bone simplicity with the aim of focusing on his characters and their tragic saga.
But in Intiman's production, Steinbeck's message sometimes gets diluted.
Directing a cast of 21 actors who play more than 40 roles, Linda Hartzell handles the stage adaptation with reverence and respect - perhaps too much so. The three-hour drama maintains such an even pace, a death seems to have the same impact as a flat tire. Perhaps in her desire to keep things simple, Hartzell unintentionally sacrificed momentum and passion. Because the vignette-guided production fails to build dramatic tension.
In "The Grapes of Wrath" - its title borrowed from the lyrics of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" - impoverished Oklahoma farmers are being forced to abandon their tenant farms. So after serving four years of a seven-year prison sentence for killing a man in self-defense, Tom Joad returns to discover his home destroyed and his family thrown off the land. They're temporarily living with Uncle John, who's about to lose his home as well. Like masses of displaced victims during the Great Depression, the Joad clan decides to migrate to California. Lured by the dream of steady work and a piece of land to call their own, 12 people - all family except for an ex-preacher - squeeze themselves and a few meager possessions into a dilapidated old truck. With more hope than luck, the Okies' wretched life on the road challenges the very fiber of the American Dream.
There are visual tableaus in Intiman's production that evoke a cinematic, black-and-white splendor reminiscent of John Ford's 1940 film, like the opening scene with the actors casting small shadows against the vast gray skies of the barren Dust Bowl.
Carey Wong's design depicts the harsh reality of the Joads' world with minimalistic suggestion. A fence made from tree branches denotes the farm setting, while Mary Louise Geiger's stage lighting creates the illusion of plowed fields on the bare stage. When the battered and overloaded pickup slowly starts to move, that same stage becomes the mother road, Highway 66.
Sheets and poles create temporary housing at the camps. Along the way, lids lift from the floor to simulate bonfires and open graves, and at one point, two long doors open to reveal a river with enough water for Tom to dive in and bathe.
Except for the whistling winds of Oklahoma, the soundtrack does little to enhance the drama. You do hear a live harmonica at one point, but where are the live guitars, accordions and fiddles? Instead you hear an inappropriate solo piano. And in one scene, a quartet sings a popular radio jingle about the new Hudson Super 6, made more meaningful when juxtaposed against the Joads' beat-up truck.
As Tom Joad and Ma Joad, Erick Kastel and Beth Dixon fail to deliver the fullness of their characters. Although Kastel has the looks of a lanky young farmer, his demeanor seems too modern for Steinbeck's 1938 setting. There's not enough of the hick farmer in him - and this comment is not meant to be condescending. Even in Tom's famous farewell speech to Ma - "I'll be ever'where - wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there" - Kastel's dispassionate monotone never quite captures the raw power of Tom's words.
Dixon is steadfast but not heartwrenching as Ma Joad. She's the backbone of the clan, so her performance should bring tears to your eyes. It doesn't. Like this production, Dixon has moments, but her overall portrayal evokes an assertiveness-training guru rather than a mother who, when pushed beyond endurance by life's circumstances, rises above her desperation to summon an even greater strength.
Intiman's acting accolades belong to its chorus of talented supporting characters. As the fallen-away preacher Jim Casy, Todd Jefferson Moore beautifully embodies the sometimes wise, sometimes comedic philosopher of the play. Yes, he's a self-admitted lascivious ex-parson, but he's also sinner, confessor, union advocate and philosopher all rolled in one. The folksy Jim asks the big rhetorical questions about sin, prayer, Jesus and faith.
With his usual panache, Laurence Ballard plays a roster of characters, from narrator to farmer and camp director. And the marvelous Josephine Howell also plays multiple roles, the best being her turn as a righteous Christian lady who patrols the camps looking for sinners to admonish. As a disheartened worker retreating from the migratory fields of California, Lance McQueen delivers a devastating monologue about helplessly watching his wife and daughters die from hunger.
Philip Davidson adds the right touch as Grandpa, a feisty, blunt-speaking old man who wants to live out his life on his own terms. Whereas Uncle John, played with down-home honesty by Russell Hodgkinson, just wants to go out drinking so he can drown the memory of his great sin. And Connor Toms offers comedy relief as Al, Tom's girl-chasing, smart-aleck young brother.
As Tom's sister, Rose of Sharon - pronounced "Rosasharn" - Autumn Dornfeld redeems her bland portrayal in the final moments of the production. After being abandoned by her husband and giving birth to a stillborn child during a torrential downpour, Rose of Sharon is carried to safety in a shabby old barn. There she tenderly breastfeeds a starving man, so weak the only sound he can make is the haunting rattle of death.
The philosophical comparison of "The Grapes of Wrath" to the plight of Hurricane Katrina victims has its limitations. From the safety of our living rooms, we all watched a heinous tragedy unfold on network television, the images of its victims forever etched in our psyches. So the onstage migrants at the Intiman may pale in the wake of real-life tragedy.
However, wherever and whenever Steinbeck's Dust Bowl epic plays out, it reminds us that tragedy does repeat itself. Almost 70 years later, people in
America are still being forgotten by the very government in charge of protecting their humanity.[[In-content Ad]]