Grapes of Wrath, at TWS, June 22, 2013

Intimate Grapes of Wrath loses none of its epic power

GrapesBy Philip Pearce

You can’t very easily distance yourself from the triumphs, struggles and catastrophes of the Joad family when they’re happening a yard or two away from your theater seat. This month’s Western Stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, written by Frank Galati, first for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and then for Broadway, is playing not in the epic reaches of the main auditorium but on the small adjoining Studio Theatre stage on the Hartnell College Campus.

Director Jeff McGrath has gathered a dedicated cast of thirty, some of them seasoned, others relatively inexperienced, but those differences don’t count for much. There’s little room for distinctions in status or name recognition. It’s a community and everybody in it seems deeply engaged in doing something everyone knows is profoundly worth doing.

The intimate staging is a challenge, but the director, cast, running crew, design team and musicians have met it impressively. Pieces of floor open up to produce temporary stools or campfires or storage spaces or watering holes as they are needed, then close again for the action of crowds and the movement of set pieces, like the Joads’ rickety truck. Don Dally has written music, sometimes haunting, sometimes ironic, for country singers and instrumentalists who set the mood, widen the focus and forward the story, nowhere more powerfully than in a pulsing roll call of towns and states and stopping points on the Joads’ troubled journey to a Promised Land that fails to keep its promises.

The intimate venue and the high quality of the show mean you may have trouble capturing a ticket, but it’s well worth the try, even if only as a hopeful standby.

Seventy five years after its publication, The Grapes of Wrath endures, and not just because it documents an important period of American history. Readers and viewers who may barely have heard of the Dust Bowl or Hoovervilles still respond to a moving story about people and feelings that are as basic and unchanging as Greek tragedy or the Book of Exodus.