AIN'T THAT AMERICA Donelly (center) and the 'Wrath' cast. [Photo by Mark Turek]
Rarely does history come alive in literature as vividly as John Steinbeck accomplished in The Grapes of Wrath, his 1939 Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning masterpiece about the Okie migration during the Great Depression.
Similar kudos are warranted when a novel is adapted for the stage as skillfully as Frank Galati did in his 1988 play of the same name, a Tony Award winner. Trinity Repertory Company is presenting it (through October 6) in their downstairs theater, marvelously directed by Brian McEleney.
Between the cursed weather and a heartless bank, the tenant farming Joads have been driven out of both their livelihood and their home. They are Ma and Pa (Anne Scurria and Richard Donelly), Granma and Grampa (Janice Duclos and Stephen Berenson) plus other family members, and the main character in the story, son Tom (Stephen Thorne). He has returned just in time to join their journey to California, freshly paroled from four years in prison for killing a man in a fight.
Tough and gritty, he represents the sort of person nurtured to survive in this rough-and-tumble, hardscrabble environment. When he shows up, a running gag has every new family member he greets ask him if he busted out of prison. He is not the only hard case here. As the crusty Grampa is conveyed by Berenson, his scowls and bursts of temper could pound fence posts into the ground. Or into the powdery soil: Oklahoma has turned into the Dust Bowl of Woody Guthrie songs and epic exodus, after all. Hundreds of thousands fled Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle.
This story, like the historical tragedy, is as much about feelings as about facts, so it opens here atmospherically. Ma describes the relentless prairie wind pulling the corn out by the roots were pulled out.” Granma says, “All day the dust sifted down from the sky. And the next. . . .” and goes on to picture how the women came out and stood next to their husbands, “to see if the men would break.”
Music helps prompt and maintain the dire tone, and the incidental score of the original production has been replaced by folk/rock songs arranged and performed by 3pile, third-year Brown/Trinity Rep MFA acting students who also take incidental roles. Sometimes, especially toward the beginning, the songs are too lengthy and intrusive, but they work well when they provide scene-changing transitions and during a rhythmic shovel-digging burial scene. Audience intimacy is enhanced by the play taking place in the setting of a bar, as though it’s being performed in the sort of workingman dive these characters would feel at home in. (Audience members can grab a beer there before the show and during intermission.)
The Joads are hopeful about their prospects in California, as Ma imagines picking oranges, grapes, and peaches. But before they arrive, a man returning rom the Golden State tells them what he encountered: farms and hiring agents advertising to attract thousands of workers when they only need hundreds, so they can drive wages down to a pittance. Tom Joad has a crisis of conscience when they arrive at a farm that desperately needs fruit picked before it rots: does he get his hungry family work or does he support the organizing workers, dismissed as Reds, who are refusing to accept starvation wages?