Theater review – “The Grapes of Wrath” – Playwright: Frank Galati, from John Steinbeck’s novel – Cast: Viktoria Adoryan, Pam Baumann, Adrienne Feldman, Brian Feldman, Susan Fronsoe, Babette Garber, David Halstead, Brigitte Hill, James Jerzyk, Tom Joyner, Tommy Keesling, John Kelly, John Kershner, Ted Mansfield, Marion C. Marsh, John Maynard, Jason McDougald, Robert Moszenberg, Tim Muldrew, Bill Orlando, Bill Patterson, Jan Peterson, Ian Russell, Roger Scott, Tom Sherohman, Mark Edward Smith, Shirley Snider, Evan Weiss, Lisa Whitson, James Zelley, Paula Zenchoff – Director: Peg O’Keef – Musical director: Morris Sullivan – Band: Frank Bunn, Adaire Fluno, Debbie Kilsheimer, Morris Sullivan – Original Music: Michael Smith – Choreographer: Ellie Potts – Fight choreographer: Phil Mansfield – Set designer: Bobby Tilley – Lighting designer: John Rolison – Costume designer: Melinda Joyner – Theater: Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave., Orlando – Times: 8 p.m. today-Saturday and next Thursday (also, 8 p.m. Nov. 20, 21 and 26-28 and Dec. 3-5, 10-12 and 17-19, 2:30 p.m. Dec. 6) – Tickets: $7 and $10 – Reservations: (407) 841-0083
November 12, 1992
From the moment Tom Sherohman puts his mouth to the harmonica at the start of Theatre Downtown’s The Grapes of Wrath, it’s clear that this classic piece of American literature isn’t going to die a stuffy death on the stage.
As the ex-preacher Jim Casy, Sherohman shows himself to be a man who hasn’t let hard times wear him down. The year may be 1938 and the place dust-bowl Oklahoma, but the jovial Casy still has a song on his lips and a fire in his eye. Snapping his suspenders, relishing the sound of his own voice, this Casy welcomes another traveler to his lonely road, and his high spirits prove to be ample welcome for an audience, as well.
High spirits suffuse Theatre Downtown’s production – not only the kind that make people grin but also the kind that raise them to a higher emotional plane than they knew before. The Grapes of Wrath makes you feel, and this production is a cry to the heart.
Directed by Peg O’Keef and enacted by a cast of 31 to the doleful accompaniment of a four-member band, Theatre Downtown’s production abandons the sparse, taciturn feeling that Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company gave its original staging for a warmer, more personable approach. If Steppenwolf’s production came closer to the solemn, angry sensibility of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, Theatre Downtown finds in that novel its joy.
It’s in the jig danced by a gaggle of used-car salesmen as they try to con yet another Okie into blowing his savings on a piece of junk; it’s in the fierce life that pours from the performers who play the Joad family grandparents and the youthful exuberance of the family’s barely grown son Al. It’s in the almost spiritual sense of human connection this drama suggests – the feeling, somehow exalting, that men and women brought to their knees still can be men and women unbowed.
Theatre Downtown’s Grapes of Wrath takes place in a brown, murky no man’s land designed by Bobby Tilley, a space seemingly sculpted of gloomy burlap and hung with limp strips of fabric like withered stalks of corn. This is the desolate Oklahoma from which the Joads are driven to make their way west to the promised land; when they set off on their journey, their beat-up Hudson Super Six is simply a cramped platform on wheels, the shape of its headlights echoed by a couple of fragments of oval picture frame. That clumsy platform, pulled laboriously on and off by extras, is the embodiment of the Joads’ journey, one fueled by human sweat.
Urged on by the show’s plaintive music – interpreted onstage with a rough beauty by Morris Sullivan, Debbie Kilsheimer, Adaire Fluno and Frank Bunn – Theatre Downtown’s large cast becomes more than the sum of its parts. Not every performer onstage is as skilled as the cast’s most able members, but O’Keef makes that matter very little. What one remembers is not so much individual performances but rather the efforts of the whole – the look of dazed hope, for example, on every face as the Joads’ overloaded vehicle moves off into the unknown.
Of course, a few performers strike closest to the heart – Sherohman as the thoughtful, benevolent Casy, Tom Joyner as a fearsome traveler fleeing California and the horrors he has seen. Pam Baumann makes a plain-spoken, fearless Ma Joad, the kind of woman whose conviction can move mountains, and Babette Garber fills Rose of Sharon – the life force of Steinbeck’s novel – with the unfulfilled promise of her mother’s strength.
Frank Galati’s adaptation of the novel moves steadily, relentlessly, not so much building to a climax as placing layer upon layer until the drama is complete. Steppenwolf’s production sometimes seemed like a long, tiresome journey, but O’Keef has managed to avoid that trap. Partly it’s the sparkle in so many of her performers; partly it’s the intimacy of Theatre Downtown itself, which all but makes the audience part of the play.
And partly this production’s success lies in its understanding of Steinbeck’s characters, an understanding that imbues the show so thoroughly you can almost feel its warmth. The powerless will endure, Ma Joad says, after everyone else is gone: ”We’re the people. We go on.” And so much spirit flows from this Grapes of Wrath that you believe it to be true.