Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
I first read The Grapes of Wrath when I was in Junior High, partly because I was already a fan of Steinbeck's writing, and partly because I was intrigued by my father's stories of his own Great Depression experiences. Steinbeck gave me vivid, compelling characters, a tremendous sense of time and place, and the powerful conviction that social justice was more than just an abstract concept, that hunger and desperation and broken lives were the actual, physical body of politics. From my Dad, I got that great social and historical events were told in small, personal, common experiences. I think a good part of the greatness of this book has to do with the sheer power and dimension of the story, and the juxtaposition of that epic national upheaval with unique individuals. When I heard that Intiman would be mounting Frank Galati's acclaimed adaptation, I re-read the novel, with enormous pleasure, and arrived on opening night with great anticipation.
There are excellent performances here, giving those wonderful characters vitality and depth. The staging is handsome and evocative, both spare and technically accomplished. The adaptation gets all the key points of the story, defines individuals and delineates relationships, moves us briskly through the action. Yet, the production is ultimately unsatisfying, even with a strikingly more effective second act, and in spite of an abundance of high quality work. It seems to me that what Director Linda Hartzell fails to achieve are the power and scale of the story, Steinbeck's ability to give grandeur both to great events and individual lives, to fill us with awe and sympathy. Particularly in the first act, the play never seems to transcend its artifice, and I was constantly aware that this was a performance imitating real people and real suffering. Simply put, the first act never quite allowed me to willingly suspend my disbelief. That was quite different in the second act, but by then too great a part of the story had passed, and with it the critical momentum of their exodus into a promised land of broken dreams and cruel indifference.
In the first act, there's a lack of dramatic tension, a slackness in both events and relationships. For example, we never really feel the impact of Tom Joad's return from prison to find his family home, his "normal" world, empty and abandoned. When his family sees him, they're happy and surprised, but no one even hugs him. That's emblematic of a lack of physical connection between people that remained throughout the long and debilitating journey to California. Perhaps it is intentional, but no one and nothing seems to have any weight, any real substance or gravity. A good part of the power of Steinbeck's story is his conviction that these people do matter, but that their society, the economic system, is treating them as if they don't. There's a moral outrage and a humanitarian ethic that is equal to the natural disaster they're escaping, and is just as powerful and elemental. Steinbeck also uses minute detail -- a crust of bread, the social status of a pot of stew, anxiety over failing car parts, a five dollar bill hidden for a desperation drunk -- in order to emphasize the physical, everyday reality of these lives, the flesh and blood of real people in the real world. The characters in this production, though, and their circumstances feel as insubstantial and inconsequential as the dust blowing around them. The second act is more effective, in part because of a greater sense of physical reality to the people and their suffering. It isn't just that the second act contains more obvious physical action, fights and protests and threats to their personal safety. It's a broader sense that the hardship is truly wearing these people down to the bone, that their hopes are not going to be able to sustain them, that social justice, like the weather, is beyond human intervention. With violence and death and constant fear, we could begin to feel ourselves that any of us might each end up in an unmarked, un-mourned pauper's grave.
A good deal of the weight of the moral outrage has to be borne by Tom Joad, and Erick Kastel<.b> simply isn't convincing. He's decent and likeable, but he just doesn't have the gravitas, nor the sense of potential violence, to embody the ex-convict with the soul of a Founding Father. In contrast, Todd Jefferson Moore is terrific as the ex-preacher Jim Casy. His blend of postured superficiality with spiritual integrity, of insisting nothing was important while searching for the meaning in everything, and his easy physicality gets everything right. Equally well-finished is the no nonsense Ma Joad, played by Beth Dixon. I believed she lived with nothing but what we saw around her, and that she was one of those women who never expected life delivered on anything but its own terms. Another excellent characterization is created by Lance McQueen, as a man whose speech warning of what lies on the road ahead, as he is on his way back, is the best thing in the first act. Russell Hodgkinson, Josephine Howell, Patrick Husted and Laurence Ballard also deliver finely wrought characters, each of whom feel dimensional and fully realized. It's quite surprising that with so many good roles, the entirety of the play fails to be convincing.
The scenic design, by Carey Wong, which features a real rainstorm, a river, a loaded truck with lights at night, a Hooverville and plenty of scraps and remnant items of daily life, is impressive and well-done. The problem is clearly not in the expertise of the mounting, or the skill of the actors, but in giving this vast and intimate drama adequate stature and significance. The problem is in making this most human of stories feel human and real and personal and grand.
Certainly part of the power in the great iconic ending, the nursing of a starving man by a woman who has just lost a newborn child, resonates because it is our most basic cultural image of sustaining the life of the physical body by the giving of another's. By the time we get to that, we should feel as if we, along with the Joads, have been pushed beyond all reasonable limits, and found strength and character and heroism in the most unexpected people. Instead, I found myself saying, as I watched that final action, "Oh, I so wish this had really been earned."