The Women Shine in The Grapes of Wrath at A Noise Within
By Fanny Garcia
“Man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm an’ loses a farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on.” – Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The women steal the show in The Grapes of Wrath at A Noise Within in Pasadena. They deliver powerful performances that seem almost effortless and clearly emote the themes of tremendous loss, displacement, futility, and sacrifice that John Steinbeck intended in the novel.
The Grapes of Wrath tells the quintessential story of American survivalism during the turmoil and uncertainty of the Great Depression. The novel follows the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers who leave their Oklahoma farm after being forced out by the banks that own it. Virtually homeless and unable to make a living as farmers due to catastrophic land erosion caused by the Dust Bowl, the Joads join thousands of other migrant families on Route 66 towards the agricultural Eden that California was thought to be.
The production uses Frank Galati’s adaptation of the classic novel, which was first produced in 1988 at Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago. Galati’s adaptation and direction for Steppenwolf’s Broadway production won him two Tony Awards in 1990. The novel tends to be male centric. It features long interchapters that illustrate the taxing decisions family patriarchs had to make in order to outrun the dust that threatened to extinguish life and sanity. It was not until watching A Noise Within’s production that I began to see the women of the novel. Perhaps it’s due to Galati’s adaptation, which reshaped many of the novel’s interchapters into bluegrass musical interludes, or maybe it’s that the production has a stellar female cast. As a result the female characters flowed seamlessly throughout the production and followed a rhythm that was reminiscent of Ma Joad’s philosophy that women’s lives are as smooth as a river and, “goes right on.”
Deborah Strang as Ma Joad is hopeful but pragmatic. She plays the character as sturdy, confident and with depth. The audience is privy to the immense sacrifice of the Joad family’s migration through her performance. Strang’s Ma Joad intuitively understands the urgency of getting the family across to the promise of California.
Lili Fuller as Rose of Sharon subtly makes her character’s quick yet graceful transition from innocent to perceptive in the final shocking scene of the story. At first I was not sure Ms. Fuller would be able to pull off such an iconic scene but she prevailed. She recreates Steinbeck’s literary Pietà and gives it indomitable dimension.
Jill Hill as Granma Joad was onstage for too short a time. I found myself wishing I’d gotten to see more of this devilish portrayal of the Joad’s matriarch. The theater gods listened to my desires however, when Hill returned as part of the ensemble and portrayed a self-righteous, fire and brimstone spewing Christian woman the family encounters at one of the migrant camps.
The men did deliver solid performances but not always with the consistency of the women. Most of their memorable moments were short-lived. Steve Coombs’ Tom Joad was nice to look at but lacked the emotional depth that this literary character requires. Coombs delivers Tom’s famous lines about the collective investment necessary for peace and justice in such a flat way that I almost missed them. Tom Joad is a legendary character who inspired artists like Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie to write songs about him as a folk hero; you can’t throw his lines about cavalierly.
In direct contrast, Josh Clarks’ portrayal of Uncle John Joad was unexpected. Uncle John is mostly a background character through much of the play and in the novel, but his character experiences catharsis when he delivers Rose of Sharon’s stillborn baby to the angry river in one of the final scenes of the play. Clarks’ performance held the audience in suspense expertly and made the Joads’ grief tangible.
In addition, Guerin Barry’s monologue as part of the ensemble details the flimsy economics behind the handbills advertising employment in California. The monologue lasts only a few minutes but leaves the audience with a sense of futility. This scene is important because up to this point the family has bought into the hopeful promise of California. Barry’s character effectively shatters the myth they’ve been holding on to and makes them think about an alternative that is less paradise and more hardship.
The play’s success is also due in large part by the production’s design team which includes scenic design by Melissa Ficociello, costumes by Garry Lennon, lighting design by Elizabeth Harper and sound design by Robert Oriol. All these different elements provide the ensemble cast with just the right atmosphere with which to bring John Steinbeck’s novel to life on a theater stage.
* * *
The Grapes of Wrath
Written by John Steinbeck
Adapted for the Stage by Frank Galati
Directed by Michael Michetti
Performances: Feb. 16th – May 11, 2013
A Noise Within
3352 E Foothill Blvd
Pasadena, CA 91107
Tickets and additional information at www.anoisewithin.org