BWW REVIEW: American Classic THE GRAPES OF WRATH Serves As A Reminder Of The Human Spirit And The Inhumanity Of Government And Big Business
Friday 9th August 2019, 7:30pm, New Theatre
Frank Galati's adaptation of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National Book Award winning THE GRAPES OF WRATH is presented with clarity and creativity by director Louise Fischer for New Theatre. In a world where migrants are still shunned, exploited, abused and essentially treated as lesser by governments, big business and the more well-off, unfortunately this look at Depression Era America still holds an unsettling relevance.
In-keeping with New Theatre's history of big cast productions, Louise Fischer has gathered a 20 strong cast to tell Steinbeck's story of the Joad family's quest to escape the drought that decimated the Plain States of central and southern USA in the 1930's. Set designer Tom Bannerman has created a curved space with a series of broad material panels to serve as a screen for the movie the townsfolk enjoy in the opening scene and the projections of archive images peppered through the production. The remainder of the arc is made up of narrow panels that allow characters to unobtrusively enter and exit scenes. Red dust mud is implied by the paint spattered stage with the same effect rising up the material drops to remind the audience that the story starts in a dry and desolate Oklahoma in the middle of a drought that had turned it, and its neighboring states into a dust bowl. Wooden benches, packing palettes other basic items make up the set with choreographed transitions allowing these rustic items to represent campsites, railway boxcars and even the worn-out family truck. Michael Schell's lighting captures the changing skies of the 1400+ miles the family travel, from the oppressive red dust filled sky, open air of the Colorado River and stark lighting of the camps they come to along the way. Sharna Graham's costume design comprises of worn and shabby neutral toned clothes that many affected by the Great Depression would have resorted to. David Cashman's sound design includes the storms and rains along with compositions of songs that break up the scenes and help reinforce the fact that the family are on a long road journey that is being taken by many others seeking a better life.
Whilst a work of fiction, Steinbeck based his work in truth, drawing on field notes from Farm Security Administration (FSA) worker Sanora Babb. This truth has been incorporated into this production through the use of archive images assumedly from the FSA's photography program which captured the hardship the 'Okies', 'Arkies' and 'Texies' and the like endured as they made their way between the various 'Hooverville' shanty towns that popped up during across America. Fischer ensures that the Joad's experience isn't romanticized and that the hostility of their world is clear. This honest helps connect this work to the recent images of migrants and asylum seekers walking across Mexico to reach the US border reinforcing that the world hasn't really learnt from its past.The performances are equally strong with key performances from Matthew Abotomey as parolee Tom Joad, William Baltyn as his friend, the former priest Jim Casy, and Rowena McNicol as Ma Joad. Abotomey captures the conflicted young man who wants to look after his family but is greatly affected when he sees injustice. Baltyn presents a tempered loquacious outsider who philosophizes and seeks to share his reason for leaving the church as having more trust in believing in the human spirit rather than an imaginary being in the sky. McNicol captures the dedication and determination of the matriarch who is the driving force of the family. The ensemble of Peter David Allison, Ted Crosby, Angus Evans, Caroline Levien, Kristy McKenzie and Brittany Johnson present Galati's narration with an ease and also lead the musical interludes which range from a vaudeville style commercial to folk style songs and ballads that often accompany the journey. It is understood that Steinbeck wanted to grab at the emotions and have people well and truly aware of the struggles faced in the Great Depression. This presentation of THE GRAPES OF WRATH definitely achieves that in this work that, like reality, doesn't have a happy ending but hopefully does make contemporary audiences reconsider their position on migration and the poor.
Photos: Bob Seary