Review: The Grapes of Wrath @ Theatre Charlotte
By Perry Tannenbaum
If you’ve ever read John Steinbeck’s sprawling masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath, you know that it’s framed with a seething anger as a picture of America’s unfulfilled promises, the cruel exploitation of the poor, and the undiminished aspirations of the Joad family. These dispossessed and determined Oklahoma sharecroppers believe in the dream.
But the Okies are tested before they reach the Promised Land of California and once they’ve arrived. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, they must cross burning desert. Clutching onto the printed handbills promising work and honest wages, they must resist the report of a broken, disillusioned man who found California to be nothing like the handbills’ hype. They must endure attacks from anti-labor thugs who fear the latent strength of worker groups.
Perhaps most difficult of all, they must strive to hold together despite forces of attrition from within – disagreements, defections, and death. Manna doesn’t shower down upon them from heaven to ease the journey.
We easily presume, with their consuming hope of a Promised Land, that the Joads’ journey is an exodus, a liberation from the landowners who have burdened them with sufferings. Another biblical parallel suggests itself on Queens Road, where Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel is making its local debut at Theatre Charlotte – a mere 37 years in the wilderness after winning the 1980 Tony Award for Best Play.
Since vile bankers and beancounters cannot loom as large on the stage as they do on the vast canvas of Steinbeck’s pages, another biblical parallel emerges clearly. Under Ron Law’s direction, with severely weathered scenery by Chris Timmons, and stark, pitiful costume designs by Chelsea Retalic – Okie clothing and faces equally sooty – I couldn’t help sensing echoes of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in this depiction of Dust Bowl devastation.
One faint echo is the drugging of Grampa Joad when he resists leaving, a parallel to how Lot’s daughters bamboozled their dad. The loudest echo came from Ma Joad, proving that she’s the antithesis of Lot’s Wife. You’ll recall that when Lot’s family was commanded not to look back while God was raining fire and brimstone on the sinful cities, Lot’s wife disobeyed and paid a famous price.
As the Joads embark, one of Ma’s kinfolk asks if she is going to take one last look back. Her no in response, with the aid of modest embroidery, is so emphatic that we take it as a philosophy. Ma Joad looks forward and moves forward. She lives by doing what needs to be done.
It’s an outlook that she successfully hands down to her daughter, Rose of Sharon, in the poignantly perverse pieta that ends the epic story.
With a performance like Paula Baldwin’s as Ma, we readily grasp that Steinbeck wished us to see her as the steadying bedrock of the family. The jut of Baldwin’s jaw and the tightened sinews of her neck were unlike anything I’d seen from her in her numerous leading roles. She’s unrelentingly purposeful, sternly nurturing, with all the patience and endurance of the ground she stands on.
Standing firm isn’t all that simple on the raked stage that Timmons has built. His pared-down design must accommodate campfires, a riverbank, and a ramshackle jalopy able to accommodate the whole clan. The skin-and-bones truck is altogether worthy of the ridicule it draws. Inspiration taken from the Little Engine That Could? You decide.
Vying with Ma for the right to be called the backbone of the family is the second-eldest son, Tom Joad, a volatile straight-shooter who is coming home from prison after serving his time for murder. It is so telling – about Tom and his fellow Okies – that everyone seems disappointed that Tom didn’t break out of jail. Easy to rile when he or his family is threatened, Tom is a seeker of truth, curious to learn how the system works.
Max Greger subordinates Tom’s volatility to his heartland wholesomeness in a promising Charlotte debut, holding his own when he shares the spotlight with Baldwin or the wild-eyed Andrew Tarek, who shambles brilliantly about as Jim Casy, a former preacher who feels like he has lost the calling. Yet in the same way that Tom is branded as an outlaw after killing in self-defense, Casy is branded as a holy man despite his renunciation – with Steinbeck’s approval, we presume, since four gospels were written about a man with the same initials.
Amid a dust cloud of bleakness and hopelessness, these running gags slightly lift the gloom.
And though there are strong unionist sympathies in the framework of Steinbeck’s yarn, you will also find an all-American emphasis on teamwork, which Law’s cast underplays enough to keep us from smelling Hollywood. Chris Melton has an adolescent randiness as Al Joad that augurs trouble and a shotgun marriage, but he also has a way with cars, performing the marvel of getting the Joads’ jalopy going. Between bouts of guilt, discouragement, and drinking sprees, Victor Sayegh as Uncle John often struck me as the most fatherly in the clan with a generous spirit.
With a cast of 23 trafficking back and forth on the sloped stage, Law needed to shape a deep ensemble that bonded together while divvying up two hours and 15 minutes of running time. Nor could he rely on the top tier of players to deliver all the little crevasses of comedy and poignancy that lurk in the wide tapestry.
Annette Gill and Rick Taylor are largely responsible for getting us off to a rousing start as the ever-bickering oldsters, Granma and Grampa Joad, portraying them as loud and slightly doddering. We get an interesting take on Pa Joad from Ryan Dunn, who doesn’t seem broken by his family’s rude displacement but rather gladly retired from the responsibility of it all, a bit dazed by the turn of events.
Zach Radhuber goes light on the simplemindedness of Noah Joad, yielding a touching moment when he sets off on his own, and Cole Pedigo gives a nerdy edge to the befuddlement of Connie Rivers, Rose of Sharon’s husband. In some ways, Ailey Finn represents the best of the new generation as “Rosasharn,” but it’s suffering that strengthens and ennobles her, and the mysterious smile that ends the novel can’t be incorporated into a stage adaptation.
Law keeps the concept of incidental music from the Broadway version but discards the content, switching from a Tin Pin Alley songlist to a folksy Woody Guthrie flavor. “California, Here I Come” steps aside for “This Land Is Your Land.” Strumming an appropriate guitar, Tom Schrachta attacks the material a bit harshly with his robust voice, but I grew fond of that discord. Schrachta also drew the acting chore of donning a rumpled trench coat (a hint of the spy parallel in the biblical exodus story) and delivering the bad news about California to the Joads.
That same harshness remained in Schrachta’s voice. Yet now it was mixing grief, discouragement, futility, and rage – very much what Steinbeck felt about the ruinous actions of America’s bankers when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.