BWW Reviews: Trinity Rep Opens 2013-14 Season with Potent, Absorbing GRAPES OF WRATH
Trinity Repertory Company starts off the 2013-14 season with a solid, hard-hitting production of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Directed by Trinity's own Brian McEleney, this staging is thoughtful and streamlined with just the right touch of the company's unique creativity.
Steinbeck's landmark novel, adapted for the stage by Frank Galati, chronicles the ever-compounding misfortunes of the Joad family. The Joads lose their place as tenant farmers and are evicted from their house when the 1930s Dust Bowl brings devastating, historic droughts to their home in Oklahoma. With only their limited remaining resources and a paper handbill offering a promise of plentiful work in the west, the family sets off in a rickety truck to seek employment as harvesters in the orchards of California.
The Joads' high expectations and hopeful good humor are soon overshadowed when calamities follow hardships and ever-more discouraging truths about their prospects in California come to light. The family starts to break up piece-by-piece from the very beginning stages of their westward trek as death, abandonment, and dire circumstances are visited on the travelers. Even when the ultimate goal - reaching California - is attained, no fairy-tale ending waits for the downtrodden company. Raw realities are depicted on stage as the Joads face an unrelenting shortage of labor, extremes of starvation, and the utter exploitation of the poorer classes.
McEleney takes a minimalist approach to the look and feeling of Trinity's Grapes of Wrath. Rather than literally recreating individual elements of the Joads' journey west, the actors bring a raging river, a lonely expanse of desert highway, and the family's first glimpses of California vineyards to life through clever blocking and judicious use of simple props and set pieces. The family's exuberant, frenzied first assembly in the truck at the start of their travels is especially well choreographed.
Overall, the staging evokes a 30s-era country saloon, complete with a working bar for audience members to patronize before the show and during intermission. Trinity's Dowling Theater becomes a theater-in-the-round for this production; audience seating surrounds the stage and a collection of bistro-style tables is set directly in the center of the performance space as well.
The 17-member cast works together seamlessly, with actors entering and exiting from numerous points on stage and many performers taking on multiple roles as the show progresses. The artists also very naturally capture the Joads' region-specific Oklahoma dialect.
Stephen Thorne brings passion and conviction to his portrayal of Tom Joad, the central character in The Grapes of Wrath. The larger issues of the story - endurance in the face of utter desperation, combating social injustices, and the exploitative rule of law versus the dictates of common decency - are all inextricably tied to Tom's journey, and Thorne incorporates all of them in his performance, well balancing Tom's bravery and courage with his stubbornness and quick-fire temper.
Trinity veteran Anne Scurria delivers an intense, heart-rending performance as the Joad family matriarch. Scurria portrays Ma Joad as a salt-of-the-Earth, no-nonsense, level-headed woman who ever and always puts her family's good before her personal needs, and her second-act scenes with the eldest Joad children - Thorne as Tom and Jessica Crandall as Rose of Sharon - are especially memorable.
Joe Wilson, Jr. provides an outsider's voice to the Joad family's journey as former preacher Jim Casy, whose unorthodox spirituality (and carnal appetites) led to his resignation from the ministry. Wilson gives Casy an easy-going, animated personality at the top of the show, then allows the characters' experiences to mellow the ex-minister into more contained moments of introspection, a subtle shift that makes Casy's later scenes and actions ring true.
Seven of the cast members - Alex Curtis, Sherri Eldin, Ben Grills, Zdenko Martin, Nikki Massoud, Ted Moller, and Matt E. Russell - are members of Brown/Trinity's MFA acting program, and their band 3pile was tapped to create original music for the show based on the text of The Grapes of Wrath. These versatile artists both act in the show and provide an accompanying soundtrack for the production. The band has a great sound and lots of energy, and while a couple of songs interrupt the narrative flow (due to either placement or length), overall the musical performances are a fitting compliment the storytelling.