Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Escape to California / Grapes of Wrath

GRAPES OF WRATH at A Noise Within

Deborah Strang and Steve Coombs Photo by Craig Schwartz

 John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is an American Classic. Frank Galati's current adaptation of the novel is anything but.  Opening live music featuring songs of the Thirties by a talented string band though well performed, are almost like dirges. This is, perhaps, to set the tone of the Depression: the angst and anger that permeated Oklahoma farmers as they endured and were driven West by the Dust Bowl. 

Director Michael Michetti has his hands full.  With marginally adept actors and a ponderous script, he also has to battle the images most of us remember in John Ford’s beautiful 1940 film version of the novel with Henry Fonda as the hero, Tom Joad.  Of late, A Noise Within has had a penchant for making their audiences endure overly long productions and this one is no exception.  Had the lumbering set changes and monumental gaps as characters come and go been filled with energy, it might have been possible to come in in under two hours instead of the current two hours and forty minutes. Even a sad story needs the fundamental essence of good staging.  Energy.

Somewhere the pathos of the journey from the Dustbowl to California by the Joad Family became more about speeches and staging than sharing the deep feelings that Steinbeck created in his novel and Ford in his film.    Ford was known for his lean movie making and Steinbeck for his devotion to the poetry of his characters.  Had these qualities been achieved, with energy, the poetry of the piece may have had more success. 

Program notes reveal what many already knew, that the author had been assigned to write for a San Francisco paper about the incursion of ‘aliens’ from the east and the terrible conditions they endured as refugees from their farms in Oklahoma. Failed crops and foreclosures had literally driven these unfortunate folks from their homes. 

With our imaginations chock full of Ford’s excellent film and whatever we may remember from surfing Steinbeck’s gritty tome; seeing the characters in our own minds, makes Galati's and Michetti’s attempt a difficult one at best. This is an intimate story. Staging using Melissa Ficociello’s creative rolling wooden sets, including the on stage assembly of the jalopy that the Joads and their new friend, Jim Casey head west in itself is fine.  Elizabeth Harper’s lights with the questionable use of open flames on stage are adequate.  The flames were more of a distraction than an asset.

Thankfully, there are performances that must be appreciated.  Deborah Strang’s Ma Joad takes her cue from Dorothea Lange’s classic 1930s Migrant Mother photograph and it works. What Strang has learned and shares in her performance is that the  heart of the character is what matters most. Certainly, this is ‘acting’ but we see no indicating, simply the heart of a woman who has done her best to hold her family together under the worst of circumstances. 

Other successes in the cast include Matt Gottlieb’s portrayal of Jim Casey, the former preacher who, through leaving his ministry, has come to a deeper understanding of the Meaning of Life.  Gottlieb’s easy connection to the words brings gentle humor and a life ethic that traces its own thread through the piece.  Stand out Gary Ballard as Grandpa Joad enjoys a brief brush with levity.  An interesting stage move as the relatives bury the sadly departed Grandpa, points up the fact that eventually we are all just dust in the wind.

Steve Coombs as Tom Joad pretty much misses the mark.  Again, the sound of Fonda’s flat Midwestern voice is impossible to forget in the most well known speech in the novel and Ford’s film. “Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there...”  Tom, of course, is Everyman and Steinbeck’s desire to expose the issues of the working emigrants manifested in the Joad Family and the unbearable labor practices foisted on the less fortunate rings brilliantly in his words. 

Had the collaboration for the adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel been honed to a finer point with the pace and energy of the story allowed to unfold with passion, this would be a tribute to not only the Okies, but to Steinbeck himself.  I made a comment to my friend that somehow this production was just too careful.  The only dangerous moment in the show is the appearance of an ensemble member whom I can’t identify as a Bully/Tough who overcame the direction and brought the fear that the migrants must have faced each day to the production.  It was at once too much and much appreciated.

A Noise Within is dedicated to ‘the classics.’  With upcoming shows for the 2013 season, Eurydice and The Beaux’ Strategem, to play in repertory, we’ll hope for more energy and less caution.

From the novel by John Steinbeck
Adapted by Frank Galati

A Noise Within
3352 East Foothill Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91107
Three plays in repertory through May 26, 2013
Tickets and information
626 356 3100

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