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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Grapes of Wrath

Theatre Works is presenting a masterful production of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. This is one of the best productions of their current season. Led by two of the Bay Area’s leading actors, Mark Phillips and Linda Hoy, this is no Neil Simon or Alan Ayckbourn type of play. I am sure some average theater goers will not find the play entertaining. This production deals honestly and realistically with the socio-economic impact of the Great Depression of the '30s as the Joad family is driven from their fields by natural disasters and economic changes beyond their control.

When the Joads are evicted and uprooted from their Dust Bowl farm land, they are forced to search westward for jobs and survival with other migrant workers. They are a microcosm of thousands of other Oklahoma farm families during the country’s time of crisis from the bank foreclosers. To the Joad family, California is the land of oranges and fruit trees, and a place where they can find peace, security and another home.

The Theater Works production shows that the play’s theme includes the central importance of family, the hope for the American Dream, and the retention of human dignity and spirit in the face of adversity. There are grave issues of social and economic justice to be learned along the way also.

I first read John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel when I was in high school, and I became interested in the plight of these farmer and their trek along route 66 to California. The term “okies” was used to depitct white trash back in those days, even in Ohio. In 1940 John Ford did a superb film based on the book starring Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell. Ms. Darwell and Mr. Ford won the Academy Awards that year for the film.

Frank Galati staged the novel for an epic production in 1988 for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The play went to both London and New York where is became an instant hit. The Grapes of Wrath won the Tony for best play in 1990 and Mr. Galati won for best director. Since then the play has played in various regional theaters across the land. It still has the same powerful message as it did when it first appeared on the boards.

The staging of is powerful - the company has pared down the physical world to a minimum, but they have retained the things that were concrete and palpable. There is a pool of water stage front where the menfolk can do cannonball dives; the water is quiet as a stream and in the end becomes a raging torrent that threatens to drown the refugees. There are also spectacular torrential rains in the last scene of the play. Broad barn planks, barbed wire fences and a makeshift shantytown set, created by Tom Langguth, are all very effective. The lighting was dramatic. I will always remember the old Hudson jalopy carrying all 13 members of the Joad family, along with their possessions, as they travel from their foreclosed farm in Oklahoma in 1938 to the fertile valleys of California. What director Robert Kelly and Leslie Martinson set designer Tom Langguth do for that car is incredible. The vehicle travels all over the stage and is the center of many of scenes. There is a wide expanse of playing space on the large stage to convey the immensity of the country. There were over 30 actors and musicians employed in this production. The story is accompanied by a trio of folk musicians who perform Woody Gunthrie-style protest song.

Most compelling of all is the performance of Mark Phillips as Tom Joad. Mr. Phillips is one of our better Bay area actors and he was the originator of one of the role in Stones in My Pocket. He has a tight jawed way of speaking brought a special strength to Tom’s words. He plays the role sharper then Henry Fonda did in the film. You can see he has a lower boiling point when he gets mad. Linda Hoy is perfect as Ma Joad; her looks alone, she watches her sons, were wonderful. She is the perfect, steadfast Ma Joad. Tom Hendrixson is compelling as the disillusioned former minister. Ron Evans plays Pa Joad and his diction as a native of Oklahoma is perfect. A new actor, Gregory Bratman, has returned from New York off Broadway theaters to play younger brother Al Joad. I think we will see more of him in the future. He is excellent in the role.

The play runs through November 5th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $20 to $38. The next play will be Triumph of Love at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. It runs from November 29 to December 31.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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