THEATER REVIEW: Ghent breathes new life into Dustbowl classic

The Grapes of Wrath/ Ghent Playhouse

THIS COULD BE a very short review. “Grapes of Wrath” is powerful. Buy a ticket. Go to Ghent Playhouse.” (My editor/publisher would probably refuse to pay me for 12 words, so…)

You are likely to know already that the play is about the desperately poor Joad family who, deprived of their land, trudge across the nation in search of work.

Adapted by Frank Galati from the famous John Steinbeck Depression novel, the play sometimes threatens to fall into a sentimental gorge. But it doesn’t! Instead, it grabs and holds and forces confrontation with a greedy, hateful monster–the one that plagues humanity again and again throughout history. (There seems to be a rule. When resources are scarce, decent people turn monstrous and the monsters must stomp on, deprive, and murder fellow humans. Even when resources are adequate, some must stomp, deprive and murder.)

We can’t subdue until we fully face. An evening at Ghent Playhouse cannot sustain the facing, but it can suggest, expose and goad. Be glad that it does.

Steinbeck/Galati do not “trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” as the old song says. They bring out the vinegar, forcing us to drink while remembering the wine it ought to be.

The faces on the Ghent stage speak the proverbial volumes: the chiseled travertine beauty of Barbara Leavell Smith as Granma Joad; the long, intelligent face of Kevin Barhydt as Tom Joad, the leader of the clan; the nicely creased-with-humor visage of Dana Berntson as Grampa Joad; the large-eyed, soft/strong face of Sally McCarthy as the indomitable Ma Joad; the complexity of the wide-headed Sam Reilly as a randy, young Al Joad; the radiant countenance of Nellie Rustick as the pregnant Rosasharon; the doughy, sweet regularity of the face of Tom Detwiler as the thinking, thinking, thinking ex-preacher; the handsome boyish features of Paul Murphy, going to joy and rage in several roles.

These are the actors that tell the story. They are quite wonderful. Although some of the supporting actors (mainly doing narration) are not quite up to the poetic language, they do only slight damage. The yappy, nasal voice and inexplicable grin of Christinelee Mackerer, in particular, seem to belong in some other play. (It all worked fine back in her excellent “Spelling Bee” performance.)

Detwiler does some of his best stage work to date in the role of a flawed, searching, philosophical former preacher. McCarthy always finds it hard to do an untruthful thing on stage, though her energy flags in Act II. (Question: How does one maintain actor’s energy while the character’s energy is being sorely tried?) Berntson’s delightful, quirky Grampa Joad makes the character’s early departure from the play regrettable. Rustick is the soul of earth-connected femaleness. And of course, Reilly does something different and interesting with what could easily become a stock juvenile. It is fun to watch the ever-increasing ability of Murphy to firmly inhabit his space and dedicate his excellent voice to character.

The costumes by Joanne Maurer are perfect–down to the subtly better garb on Reilly, whose character is in mating mode.

On opening night, there were mendable technical glitches: A wonderful, terrifyingly real storm stopped more abruptly that Mother Nature would allow; a narrator was obliterated by lack of illumination; there was an inexplicable clatter; there was a lighting design so dark as to push the actors into excessive obscurity.

These are minor matters compared with the act of choosing to produce and movingly mount “Grapes of Wrath.” It is a bold and relevant choice. Thanks are due to artistic director Cathy Lee-Visscher and the board of the Playhouse. The cast is huge. The possible pitfalls are evident (“dated,” “melodramatic”) but skillfully avoided by director Joe Phillips. In the 21st century, the world is once again desperate for the play’s message.

It is bold and relevant because it dares to suggest that human beings need to take care of each other and because the venom-laced utterance of “red!” sounds so familiar–so like our ignorance-based “socialist.” (A word, almost by itself, becomes justification for crushing fellow humans.) It is bold and relevant because one part of the citizenry labels the unemployed other as “dirty, dumb, lazy” and despises it for its hunger.

In the late 1930s, Steinbeck dared to show that there is not much limit on the human barbarity that rises and rules when profits are threatened and economic collapse lurks.

Nowadays we are more likely to talk about “inequality.” How polite that is compared with Steinbeck wrath.


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