Uttering the title The Grapes of Wrath would probably elicit groans from many college students, bringing PTSD flashbacks to the days of struggling through the classics in AP English classes. Most classic stories, it seems, have suffered rejection at the hands of young people (millennials, in particular) who are all too willing to slap one label on literature or media with a slower pace: boring.
A new production of John Steinbeck’s masterpiece at Pasadena’s A Noise Within theater, however, might inspire current and former students alike to rummage for their old paperbacks and give the story another look.
Steinbeck’s tour-de-force novel about an American family’s endeavor to survive the Great Depression is given new life by writer Frank Galati and director Michael Michetti. Galati, who won two Tonys for his production of the same play at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in 1990 and received another nomination for directing the musical Ragtime in 1998, has managed to cut together an excellent script that contains all of the key scenes of Steinbeck’s original without getting too jumpy or seeming too abridged.
Galati’s book, paired with Michetti’s masterful command of pacing and blocking, yields a product that has the potential to outdo anything currently on Broadway or the West End.
The story is well-known by now: The Joad family, dirt-poor and living in Oklahoma, packs up their old jalopy and heads west to find employment in California. The 12 members of the Joad clan are joined by their friend Jim Casy, a retired preacher. The course of the play sees their party dwindle considerably; some die, a few run away, but each character leaves a lasting emotional footprint on both the remaining family members and the audience alike.
Since its publication in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath has been the cause for much controversy. Steeped in biblical metaphors and a rather thinly veiled promotion of socialism, the book has been banned in schools and even burned in protest. Though such radical reactions to art are less common nowadays, the key moments in Steinbeck’s piece that offended so many are still likely to raise some goose bumps, if not a few eyebrows. Expect to experience a wide range of emotions as an audience member, as these gifted storytellers elicit much laughter, maybe some tears and even a gasp or two.
The iconic characters of Jim Casy, Tom Joad and Ma Joad are more than done justice by this talented cast. Matt Gottlieb gives Jim an appropriately steady air of wisdom in addition to performing a clear charisma that makes it easy to see him as a Christ figure. Steve Coombs methodically releases and restrains Tom Joad’s notorious temper; he inhabits his character with impressive sagacity.
And as Ma Joad, Deborah Strang reinforces her character’s reputation as one of the most rock-solid and pure-hearted matriarchs in America’s literary canon. Her determination to keep her family afloat and together is evident in every moment of her performance; Strang’s Ma is the definition of fierce (in a lioness way, not a Ru Paul way).
The entire cast, really does a splendid job of illustrating the mindset of both dejection and resilience that Steinbeck’s story explores. There are few, if any, weak links in this company. Since the cast is relatively large at 27 members, the stage feels suitably well-populated at all times, full of “regular folk” doing regular -folk things. Michetti arranges his actors into some gorgeous stage pictures, and the blocking is always dynamic. Further, both the fight choreography and dance sequences are a treat to witness.
Though the costumes are decidedly un-flashy to fit the era, other technical aspects of The Grapes of Wrath keep the production value high. Lighting designer Elizabeth Harper, in her use of warm yellows and cool blues, effectively reflects the temperature of wherever the Joad family travels through; keep an eye out for the jaw-dropping orange and purple gradient of the sunset. Meanwhile, sound designer Robert Oriol incorporates sound effects so seamlessly that it’s sometimes unclear whether they’re real or imagined.
The musicians are a revelation, and save many a scene that might otherwise drag. Playing era-appropriate music on guitars, mandolins and fiddles, they often do double duty as both score and soundtrack, sometimes even standing behind the audience.
For those still wondering if the trek to Pasadena is worth a performance that might ultimately leave some depressed, consider that although The Grapes of Wrath takes place several decades ago, its major themes are still mighty relevant to modern audiences. Like us, the Joads deal with classicism, negotiating the difference between what’s legal and what’s moral, the nature of sin and bridging the gap between “Can we?” and “Will we?”
A Noise Within specializes in re-packaging classic theater in a way that resonates with audiences today. So next time, skip the SparkNotes and catch a classic in all its glory.
The Grapes of Wrath runs through May 11.