The Grapes of Wrathadapted by Frank Galati from the novel by John Steinbeck. Directed by Joe Phillips.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I got it, but I’m gonna need it."
The early 1930s: Money was worth nothing; people were worth half that. As the depression ground into high gear and even the land betrayed its occupiers, thousands of families packed up their weary belongings, crossed the newly-dubbed dust bowl, and headed west to California hoping for some sort of redemption in the holy land of Hollywood’s surroundings. The movies provided an impetus; you could watch one for a few cents and see how the rich managed their days and nights. Inspiration in the form of Kay Francis and Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer and Clark Gable led millions to believe that their future lay in a land they would never reach.
Even the Joad family from Arkansas could load themselves onto a meager panel truck and journey across the world to the promised land. In John Steinbeck’s California, however, the real world was still imposing obstacles and difficulties unforseen by this family. Ma and Pa Joad held the dream close. Their sons, Al and Tom, remained loyal if skeptical. Their daughter Rosasharon and her husband held on to secret dreams and even Reverend Jim Casy found a way to buy into the non-religious prayer of a better way of life.
These and other characters from the pen of Steinbeck adorn the current production of this play at the Ghent Playhouse. A troupe of intrepid players, some good, some much better, embody the story for three weeks and for three hours each performance they trade their pennies for our honest belief and sincere reactions. Under the direction of Joe Phillips they pull off a nearly impossible task, engaging our imaginations and our hearts far into the future with their portrayal of a dishonest past. Men were fooled by hope and their wives and children were lulled into stupor by the men’s loyalty to the American dream.
In the cast in Ghent, New York, is a dream of a Ma Joad portrayed with heart, soul, guts and pride by Sally McCarthy. She is the solid rock on whom all dreams are built. McCarthy never lets Ma’s spirits flag, she never betrays by look or move or vocal tremor her sincerity. It isn’t a case of mis-direction as McCarthy plays her, nor is it a moral insipidity. Her choices for Ma are right on and her portrayal may be the finest work she’s delivered on this stage - ever.
Her son Tom, played with clarity and a bitter charm by Kevin Barhydt, is her exact opposite. He believes that his place in the world is one destined to take him through the toughest and most extreme forms of anguish. He plays the role with the heavy-hand of a man pre-condemned to sadness. He is touching and he is heart-warming as he moves away from family and its security to seek out the worst of times and the best possible future for a world trapped in constant poverty. He is nearly matched by the dramatic role played by Tom Detwiler whose Jim Casy is consistently surprising and often very moving as he discloses more and more of Casy’s alarming personal history.
Mark Wilson makes his mark as Tom’s Uncle John, a man who cannot escape the mistakes in his past. It’s a strong and moving performance. Paul Murphy shines in three very different roles, each conveying the same message in different ways. He brings out the ardor of the defeated as Man Going Back, the enthusiasm of the misguided as Floyd and the far-reaches of existence as Man in Barn. This is his best work in years. Sam Reilly’s Al Joad is a most effective character, strangely arresting and moving at times, definitely his best work with this company.
Dana Berntson makes Grampa Joad unforgettable with his depths of humanity portrayal. Robert Walker is tragically humorous as the Mayor of Hooverville. Sally Dodge brings a peculiar reality to the brief role of Agricultural Officer that was chilling. Barbara Leavell Smith is perfect as Granma Joad, her keening a wonder to hear. Christine Mackerer’s voice is clarion in her Narrator bits and devastating in the heart-warming role of Aggie Wainwright.
Nellie Rustick and Michael Meier as Rosasharon and Connie Rivers deliver solid performances, Rustick particularly effective in the final scene of the play. The three musicians who take us through the emotional changes in the play with their folk song renditions are John Birchler, Jim Broden and Matthew Meier.
The rest of the company do what is asked of them, I hope, for their work is a complement to the cast members cited above.
Brendan Conroy’s set for the show is amazing, professional and yet executable on a stage with very little space to the sides, rear or above. He captures the feel of places with the same pieces used differently and his turntable unit is extremely effective. What happens in the second act with that turntable will make your hair curl. His design work is reasonably augmented by the lighting design of Jason Goldman.
Joanne Maurer has delivered perfect costumes for this company’s many roles. I could literally see Ma Joad’s hardships paying off in her clothing, for example, as she becomes less robust and healthy and her clothes fit her more strangely.
This is a long and difficult play: three hours encompassing about six months in the lives of this large, extended family’s journey to the middle of their own nightmares. It is Steinbeck’s lyrical salute to the Arkies and Okies attempt to find a better life in a new land. You may have seen the film with Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell as Tom and his Ma but to experience it live with these actors is a whole different ball game. I’d say "batter up" but I don’t want to spoil anything for you. See the play.
The Grapes of Wrath plays weekends at the Ghent Playhouse just off of Route 66 in Ghent, NY through June 8. For information and tickets go their website at www.ghentplayhouse.org or call the box office at 800-838-3006.