By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The Joads do finally make it to California in The Grapes of Wrath. Though not without a great many problems. Now onstage at Addison's WaterTower Theatre, Frank Galati's inelegant stage adaptation of the magnificent Steinbeck novel is directed by WaterTower artistic director Terry Martin. He's put some seriously talented local actors into overalls for this one, but wow, is it a bleak two and a half hours of drama.
In trying to blow the dust off the 1939 saga of a desperate Okie family's attempt to escape the Dust Bowl, Martin has laden his staging with tedious tableaux and musical gimmickry. Everybody seems to be striking a pose or moving from here to there for no reason other than obvious blocking. Some scenes are so unnaturally arranged, they look like pages from Awkward Family Photos. Sonny Franks, a great bluegrass picker and singer, slows down the flow of the play with tunes he steps forward to perform as a minstrel-narrator between nearly every scene.
Making the evening bearable with their good performances: Cameron Cobb, playing young Tom Joad with a fine-tuned flat Oklahoma twang; Steven Pounders as Jim Casy, the lapsed preacher who joins the God-fearing Joads on the trip to California; Stephanie Dunnam as the strong, noble Ma Joad; Arvin Combs as broken-spirited patriarch Pa Joad; and Van Quattro in several roles in the ensemble, including the part of a well-meaning manager of a Southern California migrant workers' camp.
The tragedy of the Joads, who arrive in California only to find that thousands of other poor Okies are already there, and starving, too, unfolds on WaterTower's wide stage framed with weathered gray lumber, planks set at tilted angles as if the earth is off its axis (set design is by Chris Pickart). The actors, dressed in muddy colors (costumes by Barbara Cox), amble on and off, looking altogether too modern to be believable as Depression Era Americans (all those white teeth, all that shiny hair not cut into period styles). The Joads' rattle-trap truck, overloaded with passengers, some of them sick and dying, is pushed — no, danced — around the stage in a needlessly showy manner. (By intermish, I'd nicknamed it "Shitty-shitty Bang Bang.")
Maybe The Grapes of Wrath, great as literature, good made into the 1940 movie starring Henry Fonda, is just too big a story for the stage. In a theater, with that make-believe truck and pre-recorded crickets, it's just a sad play about a big family that needs a good meal and a bath.