Transferring the epic sweep of John Steinbeck's expansive novel about the Great Depression in general and the journey of the Joad family in particular would appear to be a daunting, if undoable, task. But the haunting production of Frank Galati's adaptation now onstage at the Chatham Community Playhouse is proof that a company doesn't need fancy sets with amazing special effects to pull off a masterful dramatic feat!
Frank Licato's deft direction of a large cast (many of whom double and even triple as characters) involves the audience in the "education" of the Joad family—Oklahoma sharecroppers bulldozed off their land, literally, by the banks for failure to repay their loan—as they travel to the promised land of California seeking work. Lured by flyers advertising jobs picking fruit, they load up an old jalopy and join thousands of others on Route 66 en route to a better life, a life that eludes them at every turn when more people show up for jobs than there are positions. Little by little, the family shrinks as members die or leave, much to the consternation of the Joad matriarch, for whom the “fambly” is paramount.
Licato has worked with designer Robert Lukasik to produce a set that almost isn't one: a bare stage, canted downward toward the audience, provides a canvas for various venues, most of which are merely "suggested" by an incomplete doorway, a fence, some bags filled with sand, flags to denote a hall for dancing. Grates open to depict campfires and even a river, while a huge set of doors on the back wall become the entrance to the box car that is the final resting place of this restless family. The centerpiece of the set is the large car/truck loaded with possessions and family members. Fortunately, Steinbeck's words as adapted by Galati and spoken by a stellar cast carry the story along and give the audience information as to just where the family has stopped on its journey. Richard Hennessy's atmospheric lighting and Joe DeVico's sound add to the effect.
With such a large cast, it's difficult to mention everyone's performance, but suffice it to say that the various parts form a cohesive whole. Debbie Bernstein's fierce portrayal of Ma Joad (right) is the center of the play as she fights mightily to hold her family together. As her spouse Pa, Tom Hodge defers to his wife but conveys the man's wounded dignity at being summarily thrown off his land and called a "bum" by those observing the river of humanity flowing west to California. Steve Gabe's Uncle John communicates the agony of a man who thinks he is a sinner for causing the death of his young wife, and Ian McGonigle is fine as the simple son Noah who cannot cope with the changes the family undergoes. Thom Wolfe's Al Joad (top left, driving the truck) is all teenage hormones; Scott Tyler as Connie Rivers is full of high hopes and marital hijinks; and Jeslyn Wheeless is wonderful as Granma, especially as she tries to keep a demented Grandpa, played with great spirit by Arnold Buchiane, in line.
The play's center, however, is Dale Monroe, Jr., as Tom Joad (left in photo), recently returned from a four-year stint in prison for killing a man and pressed into service of leading, with his mother, to a new life. It is the transformation from self-centered young man to one who takes on the role of speaker for the downtrodden that is the most profound. And Monroe's portrayal is convincing and sympathetic. He's matched in artistry by Jeff Maschi as Rev. Jim Casey (right), lapsed holy roller who struggles with his faith and the expectations of the family regarding his calling. We can feel his torture and applaud his selfless act of taking the blame for hitting a deputy so Tom can get away. Finally, Amanda Prieto's performance of newlywed/pregnant Rose of Sharon, Tom's little sister, provides the play's most poignant depiction of hope. She brims with life, literally and figuratively, with dreams of a house in town, a husband with a job in electronics and a family. Watching her lose that optimism little by little is heartbreaking. (Left in above photo to right)
Beverly Wand has provided costumes that fit each character, and Joelle Bochner and Tish Lum's props complete the picture of the historic era. Steve Ruskin's fight choreography is realistic.
The United States has seemingly dodged another Depression, but Chatham Community Players' choice of The Grapes of Wrath is a fitting reminder that even in the 21st century, there are folks turned out of their homes by failure to pay the mortgage, folks without jobs, folks deemed to be lazy and denigrated for needing to use food stamps because they cannot find employment. Perhaps the old adage, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," still holds true. How sad. Thank you to CCP for reminding us of the dignity and humanity of those who are suffering.
The Grapes of Wrath will be performed at the Chatham Community Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, through March 17. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sunday, March 11, at 3 PM. This is a marvelous play for teens to see. Bring them along. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit online at www.chathamplayers.org.
Photos by Howard Fischer.