The key word for The Grapes of Wrath is “perseverance.” Not only does it apply to the dispossessed Joad family and the thousands of other Okies who trudged across America in search of work and survival during The Great Depression, but it also applies to the play’s audience. John Steinbeck’s 1939 grim realist novel, adapted for the stage by director Frank Galati and Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1988, lacks much of what is considered theater’s basic building blocks: the drama is thin, the actual plot is wandering, and the straightforward tale makes no apologies for its lack of a true antagonist. It’s this honest, sometimes weary approach to Steinbeck’s iconic work that results in a play that’s trying at times and immensely rewarding at others.
Terry Martin has assembled a cast as vast and impressive as the Great Plains to tell the tale of the Joad family, Dust Bowl tenant farmers who dream of the paradise that surely must be awaiting them in fertile California. To have Cameron Cobb, Stephanie Dunnam, and Steven Pounders lead your cast is notable—to have actors such as Van Quattro, Austin Tindle, and Mary-Margaret Pyeatt in your ensemble is an embarrassment of riches.
Cobb conveys Tom Joad’s proud and volatile nature through quiet strength. His gruff, clipped speech and halting gait confirm that this is not a showy performance, but rather one that is allowed to simmer and build through the evening’s nearly three hours. When he delivers the speech that Henry Fonda famously turned into a battle cry in John Ford’s film version, Cobb’s Tom instead unleashes desperation and sadness.
Dunnam matches him step for step as no-nonsense Ma Joad, a woman who for her family’s sake continues to believe that a better life is coming, even as the graves are dug and the dreams blow away with the dust. She’s a comforting presence, leading the show with a sure hand and providing someone real for us to latch onto.
Pounders presents the wandering former preacher Jim Casy as an enigma, which helps somewhat to heighten the tension as the group makes its way west. Strong supporting performances from Conner Wedgeworth, as girl-crazy younger brother Al, Jason Johnson-Spinos, as simple older brother Noah, and Mikaela Krantz, as naïve sister Rose of Sharon, all help flesh out the Joad family to an extent—there’s still a passel of children and grandparents that go mostly silent.
Martin manages to keep the illusion of wide open spaces intact on Chris Pickart’s stirring, tilted set (hauntingly lit by Leann Ellis), never trading isolation for an overabundance of background actors. The sound designer isn’t identified in the program, but thanks to his or her work you can almost feel the great gusts of wind barreling through the set’s rickety wooden slats.
A four-person band, comprised of Sonny Franks, Dennis Bailey, Sara Bollinger, and Michelle Feldman, plays Michael Smith’s folk and blues-inspired music with aplomb. Whether it’s with a melancholy steel guitar or a rollicking banjo, moods are immediately established thanks to this talented quartet, and it’s difficult to imagine this production without it.
Though overly drawn-out and sometimes a touch too subdued, WaterTower Theatre’s ambitious tackling of Steinbeck’s grand saga ultimately reinforces the Pulitzer Prize-winning story’s relevance to today’s socio-economic problems. It’s a long and difficult—yet oddly rewarding—journey.
Photo by Mark Oristano.