With so many people out of work and losing their homes nationwide, this is the right time for a revival of "The Grapes of Wrath." Yet A Noise Within gambles that audiences will want to be reminded of local and national woes. This production contrasts initial optimism with joy. Get there early or you'll miss the pre-show performances that get us in the mood.
John Steinbeck wrote his 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about destitute Okies migrating to California to work in the fields for a pittance, but Frank Galati wrote this stage adaption. This version was produced by the Steppen Theatre Company in 2009. Gary Sinise played the lead character Tom Joad on Broadway and PBS televised one of the performances.
Most people will remember the late Henry Fonda in the 1940 movie directed by John Ford. That movie differed from the novel and was made at a time when people were nervous about accusations of possible pro-Communist sentiment and public morality made the book's ending controversial. Galati preserves the ending but it's tastefully done so this is a production safe for older children.
Director Michael Michetti brings together a group of musicians for a pre-performance concert and throughout the play, music helps transition and set the tone. In the role of Tom Joad, Steve Coombs has a boyish honest as opposed to the bone-weary earnestness of Fonda. Tom has just gotten out of prison and his heading home when he meets up with the preacher who baptized him, Jim Casy (Matt Gottlieb). Casy doesn't have the spirit any more and even when he did he was lead around by his carnal needs--something that Galati's script lets you know was common knowledge.
Tom and Casy soon learn that things aren't well in Oklahoma. Tom's home is represented as an oversized shed with board loose. Something terrible has happened: The landowners are driving out the tenant farmers. The Dust Bowl is blowing hard and the farmers are bits of dust in the wind heading toward California.
Someone dropped in on the towns and handed out fliers offering good jobs so the Joads get into a rickety jalopy with more hope than good sense and head out for the West Coast. On their way, they lose three members of their extended family and they find growing prejudiced against the Okies. In California, they find the promises are false and without a home, they wander begging for jobs and hoping for kindness.
Getting good treatment was hindered by fear of Communism. Anything could easily be labeled as communist agitation and be quelled, but there's a difference between communism and love for mankind. Casy and Tom find their calling to help their fellow man while Ma Joad (Deborah Strang) is left to support her husband and keep the family together.
Besides the transformation of Lili Fuller's Rose of Sharon from a blushing newlywed with twinkling eyes to a tired deserted wife with blank eyes dead from depression, the merry music at the beginning heavily contrasts the more somber times in California. "The Grapes of Wrath" reminds us that the good old days weren't always good. The Okies migration into California is a part of history, just as the exploitation of migrant field labor. Now at least we can have movements like Occupy Wall Street and police brutality gets videotaped and questioned.
If you can bear remembering the pains of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, this production is well worth seeing during our own economic hard times. Perhaps it will inspire random acts of kindness.
"The Grapes of Wrath" continues at A Noise Within until 11 May 2013. Go to ANoisewithin.org for tickets and the show schedule. Post-show conversations are scheduled for 12 April 2013, 8 p.m. (Friday) and 3 May 2013, 8 p.m. (Friday).