Chicago Theatre Review
A Quest to Regain Dignity
The Grapes of Wrath – Gift Theatre
There’s no other novel that paints such an honest, unflinching portrait of the hopelessness of a people, particularly those stalwart families and individuals who survived the gloom created by the Great Depression, than John Steinbeck’s classic novel. The dashed hopes, emotional trauma and desperation experienced by thousands during the 1930’s, following the stock market crash on Black Tuesday, also inflicted devastation upon farmers as crop prices fell to an all-time low. This, coupled with a lengthy period of draught and wind erosion, that turned the skies black with choking, billowing clouds of dirt, changed the American Great Plains into the Dust Bowl. In order to survive, entire families were driven westward to seek employment, food, a home and somewhere that’s green.
Steinbeck won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for his realistic 1939 novel, which was turned into a celebrated, much-beloved motion picture the following year. Chicago theatre playwright and director Frank Galati adapted the novel into a 1988 play for Steppenwolf Theatre, which eventually found its way to both the West End and Broadway, where it won the Tony for Best Play.
The drama tells the sprawling saga of the Joads, a large, extended family who, after losing their Oklahoma farm during the Depression, leave their homeland, lured by the promise of a better life in California. Hoping to regain jobs, land, their dignity and a future, these Okies are among the many Americans who ultimately found a new life as migrant workers. The long, arduous trek west, crowded inside a rickety pickup, packed to the brim with family and as many belongings as would fit, proved to be challenging journey and not without its difficulties. Illness, death, childbirth, run-ins with the law, as well as confrontations with ornery strangers resulted in unbearable humiliation and degradation every step of the way. The difficult migration, like life, is episodic and doesn’t have a happy ending. However, it’s the family’s journey and their constant struggle to stay together that casts its spell and teaches audiences some painful lessons.
Brilliant director, filmmaker and Gift ensemble member Erica Weiss guides Galati’s sprawling drama, using the cramped confines of the intimate Gift Theatre to her best advantage. The claustrophobic environment of the venue becomes a metaphor for the Joads, trapped in their search for a better life, dependent upon each other for survival. Courtney O’Neill’s deceptively simple, two-level scenic design, dominated by the Joad’s dilapidated jalopy, is accented by an American Primitive-style backdrop of hills, valleys and open sky, created by scenic artist Elyse Balogh. The production is nicely flavored by Christopher Kriz and Daniel Carlyon’s spot-on sound design (particularly a very realistic thunderstorm), Charles Cooper’s atmospheric illumination and Mr. Kriz and Diego Colon’s original music, primarily performed live by Mr. Colon as the Balladeer, with occasional backup from the entire cast.
What’s even more exciting is the diverse casting of this production. The ensemble represents almost every group in America, and illustrates the melting pot upon which this country prides itself. Namir Smallwood is astounding as Tom Joad, the central character of Steinbeck’s story. Quietly intense, this young actor evolves throughout the two-hour-and-forty-five minute production, simmering emotionally until he can finally contain himself no longer. His face tells so much of this story and his scenes with the equally reserve, yet powerful Kona N. Burks, as Ma Joad, are among his best work. The other standout in this terrific cast is Jerre Dye, known primarily around Chicago as a playwright and director. Here, Jerre is making his Windy City debut as an actor, and, as such, he gives an excellent performance as disillusioned minister, Jim Casey. The character’s long ramblings allow Mr. Dye to revel in the thoughts and words that seem to reflect Steinbeck’s own voice in this piece. Both Smallwood and Dye begin their journeys together, but seem to go their different ways. However, by the conclusion of this play, we find they’re more alike than ever and that they’re truly brothers from a different mother.
Gift ensemble members Paul D’Addario and Jay Worthington turn in excellent performances as Pa Joad and Uncle John. As an older vision-impaired man whose heart is heavy with his own personal agony, Worthington is particularly exceptional. The always impressive Lane Flores brings an ambiguous, animal-like quality to Tom’s younger brother, Al Joad. Emily Marso shows strength and determination as an increasingly pregnant Rose of Sharon Joad, and newcomer Tim Martin creates a restless, renegade in Connie Rivers. Jose Nateras is powerful as Floyd Knowles as he tries to warn the Joads about the reality of job security in California.
This is an incredible production of an 80-year-old story that couldn’t feel more timely. With so much recent discussion about how to make America strong, about immigrants and jobs, this play offers another view of our country. It unflinchingly looks at who we are and how we got to this place in history. This heartbreaking tale of men and women, uprooted from their homes and forced to humble themselves in order to survive, is all collectively a part of what’s known as the American Dream. And the honesty and power behind Steinbeck’s novel takes centerstage in this powerful production.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 16-August 14 by the Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-283-7071 or by going to www.thegifttheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com