By Jonathan Ramos
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Jonathan Curiel
By Alexis Coe
Mexican and Central-American migrant workers have trudged to California for almost a century to pick vegetables and fruit; around Watsonville and Napa, during the summer harvest, some of them still live in tents and caves. As a tide of "illegal" migrants they've been effectively turned away twice, once during the '30s, when white homesteaders from the Dust Bowl were available for the work, and again in the '50s. The fierce prejudice and exploitation suffered by those farmers found its way first into Steinbeck's novel, from there into a Henry Fonda movie, from there into a Woody Guthrie song, and lately into a play. No one can say this odd chapter of our labor history has been ignored. Any day I expect to hear about Terrence McNally writing the musical.
The play starts with wind, dusty murk, and an eerie singing saw. Preacher Casy sprawls Christlike on the side of a road, drunk, and Tom Joad strolls by, on his way home from jail. They share a drink, then Tom invites Casy home to see the family. But instead of a mess of Joads on a farm they find a desolate ghost-barn and some barren fields. The homestead's been reclaimed by the bank, and the rest of the Joads happen, at that moment, to be packing a car for California.
The scene that follows is stagey and yet natural enough to explain why The Grapes of Wrath has survived so many transformations. Steinbeck had a talent for creeping up on the convenient, unlikely coincidence. Before you notice, not just Preacher Casy but the whole audience has been carefully introduced to every important character. There's Pa in his overalls, Ma cooking soup, Grandma and Grandpa limping around, and Rose of Sharon with her pregnant belly; young Al Joad must be out chasing a girl somewhere, but he'll be along soon. With an almost poetic economy the same scene sets up the family's hopes. Grandpa announces that the first thing he wants to do in California is fill a big tub with grapes and flop down in it. "I'm gonna sit in there and scrooge around, an' let the juice run down mah legs." (I had forgotten Gramps was such a dirty old man.) But of course his vision of paradise lies about as far from reality as Fresno lies from Tahiti.
The play works because it concentrates on these scenes. It also hones the story down to its classic-journey elements: Playwright Frank Galati has captured some of the sweep of Steinbeck's novel by showing the Joads' most important stations of suffering. First they bury Grandpa. Then a half-crazed man with a jackass laugh warns them away from California with a harrowing speech about his starved kids. During a nighttime agricultural inspection, Ma gets the family into California by claiming Grandma is "sick," when in fact she's died. Then they gaze across the Central Valley, at a view rendered onstage by an old cartoonish ad for "Valley Home Brand Oranges." Then come the Hoovervilles, hard rain, labor violence, and death. Nighttime scenes in the car and some cheesy live folk music punctuate the trip.
Galati developed this adaptation for the Steppenwolf Theater in 1988; the original Chicago cast went to Broadway in 1990. Theaterworks co-directors Robert Kelley and Leslie Martinson have worked up a new production on the same model, with careful attention to stage effects like the music, the Joads' jalopy, and the four elements -- wind, dust, fire, and rain -- to stress the story's mythic proportions. The jalopy looks like a yellow-eyed bug, hung with lanterns, tools, wash tubs, and a potato sack. The rain falls from a sprinkler system and washes into a riverbed downstage. The campfires use clever little fluttering electric bulbs. Set designer Tom Langguth, lighting designer Steven Mannshardt, and sound designer Robert Arturo Ramirez all deserve credit for the sheer naturalism of the Theatreworks show. David Babich's folk music, based on a score by Michael Smith (who borrows from Woody Guthrie), is also fine as long as nobody sings.
Too bad the acting lacks energy. Everyone in the cast seems to strain, at one point or another, for an Okie dialect. Bill Badger's Grandpa may be the strongest burst of performance, because Grandpa can stand a lot of caricature and because he dies so soon. Michael Lederman's Man Going Back -- with the speech about his starved children -- is also brief and bright. But over the course of two and a half hours, both Tim Hendrixson as Casy and Mark Phillips as Tom fluctuate between country eloquence and Okie hokiness. Same with Jacqueline Hillsman. She has the right plain beauty for Rose of Sharon, but on opening night she overdid the voice (except in one good speech). The real center of this production is Linda Hoy's performance as Ma; she plays the stout, long-suffering woman without brilliant flourishes but also without sentiment, and her simple believability works like a keel on a sometimes-fluttering ship.
The show is absorbing, though. If it can't match the power of the book, it still treats Steinbeck's material with pathos and fidelity. It closes with Steinbeck's final scene -- Rose of Sharon suckling a starving man -- which couldn't be filmed in 1940 but proves stark and strange onstage. The Joads' exodus really was mythic. The only question is why it hasn't been updated by any younger writers. White tenant farmers were reduced en masse to peasantry only once, by a freak drought in the '30s, but the same story of desperate (different-colored) migrants plays out every year, in our local strawberry fields and vineyards.