BWW Review: THE GRAPES OF WRATH Skims Steinbeck at Houston Theatre Group

Photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas

At BroadwayWorld's invitation, well-known Houston theatre critic Gary Laird weighs-in on Houston Theatre Group's ambitious production of THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Laird is a man of many talents -- playwright, photographer, retired professor -- and has worked in the Houston theatre scene for many years. - Brett Cullum

Adapting the great American novel by Steinbeck for the stage is a tall order. A very tall order. THE GRAPES OF WRATH is the story of the Joad family, evicted from their farm in Dustbowl Oklahoma and forced to leave for the land of milk and honey that they hope California will be. The novel is dream-like, atmospheric and precisely detailed, all at the same time, and herein lies the problem. Adapted for Broadway in 1990, it won writer Frank Galanti two Tonys, for Best Adaption of a Play and Director, and was critically praised. But it ran slightly in excess of three hours, with a cast of thousands on an elaborate, and elaborately lit, set.

When the Houston Theatre Company chose to present the play in The University of St. Thomas Jones Hall, a small black box venue, they bit off a lot. I admire their grit, but I can't help wondering, if they had it to do over again, would they?

First there's the cast. Even with a cast of twenty-four, almost unheard-of for a local company, several parts had to be doubled or tripled, with mixed results. Actors strong in some roles were less effective in others. Popping up unexpectedly as a different character created some confusion.

Another issue is the length of the script, necessitating a drastic number of cuts to get it down to a running time of a little over two hours. Understandably, this cuts into the narrative, weak to begin with, and results in several rather abrupt gaps.

And then there's the space itself. Director Rebecca Bernstein explains that the stripped-down set, composed of several black square and rectangular boxes representing everything from an abandoned farmhouse to a loaded truck, to a boxcar and a barn, served to reflect the sparseness of life in the Depression-era Dustbowl, but in truth it was a dire necessity. The stage isn't really large enough to accommodate a complete set which is required to move, even if the company could afford one, and this is a fact of community theater life. Bernstein did a good job with what she had.

So why go to see this production? There are several reasons. If you have never read the novel or seen the 1940 movie, this performance will serve as a good introduction to Steinbeck's work.

Then there's the cast of hard-working actors, several of whom had stand-out moments.

First is Sheryl Croix as Ma Joad, the glue that keeps the production together. Determined to keep her family intact, whatever the cost, she prods, pushes and cajoles her ragtag bunch through a series of hardships that few could survive. She does it with patience, humor and downright orneriness, traits that Croix ably portrays. Neil Ellis Orts is suitably down-trodden as Pa Joad, but it's clear who wears the pants in the family. Brian Heaton portrays son Tom as soulful, with an undercurrent of anger.

Sue Beth Fry does a nice turn as Grandma, maybe a few marbles short and not always sure what's happening, but with warmth and sass as she keeps an eye on Grandpa, Steven Martinez.

Olivia Clayton, as the long-suffering Rose of Sharon, gives it her all through thick and thin, and there is considerably more thin. Her poignant yearning for a real home and family is touching.

Nick Mauldin takes on the role of younger brother Al, the girl-chasing dreamer, with the necessary charm. Todd Greenfield, as guilt-ridden Uncle John, dominates a scene near the end of the play that may elicit a tear or two.

Rounding out the Joad family are Ryan Harrison as Brother Noah and 11-year-olds Reid Sline and Abby Simmons as Winfield and Ruthie Joad.

Sasha Redmon provides atmosphere as a soulful singer of songs.

Taken all in all, THE GRAPES OF WRATH is a wild ride, and when the Joads finally arrive at their destination you'll feel you went every mile. - Gary Laird

Remaining performances of Houston Theatre Group's THE GRAPES OF WRATH are at 8 p.m., July 15 through 17 at the University of St. Thomas' Jones Hall, 3910 Yoakum Blvd. For more information, please visit

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