For a textbook example of how to turn an epic, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a Tony-winning play, and then make it one of the most powerful—and breathtakingly theatrical—productions around town, head on over to Pasadena to catch the gritty magic that director Michael Michetti has conjured up at A Noise Within.

GW174 Taking Frank Galati’s stage adaptation, the Tony-winning Best Play of 1990, as his point of departure, Michetti has added folk music and dance to Steinbeck’s and Galati’s indelible words to make this Grapes Of Wrath something very special indeed.

Audiences at ANW’s terrific new East Pasadena digs will find the play, or rather its musical prologue, already in progress upon their entrance into the theater, actors and musicians engaging in a song-and-dance hoedown to “benefit” victims of the 1930s drought that turned the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas into what became known simply as The Dust Bowl.

Steinbeck put a human face on dire newspaper headlines in his 1939 novel, faces made even more human when Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell starred in John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation. Now it’s Galati’s and Michetti’s turn.

Not having read or seen either novel or movie (I know, I know), this reviewer can only speculate on the challenges screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and playwright Galati faced in adapting a 450-page novel for screen and stage. My reading/flimgoing lapse, egregious as it may be, does make it possible for me to assure readers that Galati’s stage adaptation of the Steinbeck classic tells its tale so clearly and effectively that even those with only the barest knowledge of its characters and plot will find The Grapes Of Wrath (The Play) quite effortless to follow, already an achievement in and of itself.

Following Michetti’s musical introduction, Galati’s play opens with the unexpected return of Tom Joad (Steve Coombs) to his family’s Oklahoma farm following a four-year incarceration for a murder that was in fact a case of self-defense, if a bit extreme in nature. (Someone stuck a knife in Tom, so he knocked his attacker’s head “plumb to squash” with a shovel.)

Joined by former preacher Jim Casy (Matt Gottlieb) on his way to the family homestead, Tom and his traveling companion discover to their dismay an abandoned farmhouse with no Joad in sight, though Tom is soon brought up to date by family friend Muley Graves, who informs the prodigal son of the entire Joad clan’s plans to head west to California to seek a new life in a land where, they are told, an abundance of jobs await them.

GW310 It doesn’t take long for Tom and his family to become disabused of this notion, as first Grampa dies along the way, after which they are harassed by a hostile police officer, encounter a camp filled with disillusioned fellow migrants, and learn that the work and wages they’ve come seeking have been greatly exaggerated. It’s no wonder, therefore, that Tom soon finds himself turning from optimistic pilgrim to impassioned social activist, prompting lines that even those who’ve never read the novel or seen the movie will doubtless recognize: “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folk eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”

It’s Michetti favorite (and one of our finest young leading men) Coombs who gets to say the words made famous on film by Henry Fonda, just part of what is yet another memorable Coombs creation, a gritty, electric portrait of a simple farmer turned political activist.

GW115 GW263

Gottlieb is equally memorable as Casy, with Jill Hill (Granma Joad), Gary Ballard (Grampa Joad), and Josh Clark (Uncle John Joad) leaving unforgettable impressions as well, though Lindsey Ginter’s Pa Joad comes across more simpleminded than folksy. Pa’s wife Ma Joad, on the other hand, ranks among the finest performances ever given by A Noise Within treasure Deborah Strang, rich, understated, heartbreakingly real work from ANW’s resident Meryl. Mark Jacobson (Noah Joad), Jesse Peri (Connie Rivers), and dynamic newcomer Andrew Hellenthal (Al Joad) are terrific too, with Ranya Jaber (Ruthie Joad), Nicholas Neve (Winfield Joad), and Fionn James (Boy In The Barn) doing refreshingly un-child-actorish work. As for Lili Fuller, the two-time Ovation Award-nominated choreographer and 2009 USC grad, proves herself a dramatic actress par excellence in a lovely, haunting turn as eldest Joad daughter Rose Of Sharon, whose act of selfless generosity gives Galati’s play its extraordinary if abrupt climax.

GW411 And then there is Michetti’s magnificent ensemble (Caleb Austin, Ballard, Dorrie Braun, James Ferrero, Henry Funk, Cristina Gerla, Hill, Jacobson, Jennifer Losi, Douglas Rory Milliron, Peri, and Kristina Treves), each one essaying multiple roles which are, unfortunately, not specified in the program, so individual credit cannot be given to some deeply powerful work in assorted cameos.

Doubling as musicians and actors are Guerin Barry, Matt Foyer, Robert Oriol, Stephen Rockwell, and Korey Simeone, whose songs of the Great American Plains enrich Steinbeck’s and Galati’s narrative and make this a Grapes Of Wrath unlike any other.

And if Michetti’s imagination and the abovementioned onstage performances weren’t already enough to set this Grapes Of Wrath apart, there is the stellar work done by A Noise Within’s design team, beginning with scenic and prop designer Melissa Ficociello’s multipurpose set, a modular marvel which gives us farm houses, Hoovervilles, riversides, railway boxcars, and most extraordinarily, takes a wheeled platform, boxes, chairs, and assorted onstage paraphernalia and assembles them into the Joad truck, a vehicle which not only transports the family from state to state, it actually gets moved around the stage thanks to some strong and agile ensemble members.

GW432 Elizabeth Harper’s evocative lighting and Garry Lennon’s deliberately distressed costumes are superb design contributions as well, as is Oriol’s sound design and musical direction. (Note how the sound of an engine revving and stalling gets rendered via guitar for just a hint of Oriol’s ingenuity.) Others deserving applause include dialect coach Nike Doukas, hair, wig, and makeup designer Monica Lisa Sabedra, fight choreographer Ken Merckx, and movement choreographer Justin Eick.

Working behind the scenes are Lana Marks (stage manager), Meghan Gray (production manager), Seth Walker (technical director), Maria Uribe (head stitcher), and others too numerous to mention.

Following its superb Fall Season, one which brought us Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma, The Grapes Of Wrath joins Sarah Ruhl’s upcoming Eurydice and Thornton Wilder & Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of George Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem for a particularly innovative Spring Season, one in which a classic 20th Century novel, an ancient Greek legend, and an early 1700s play are given a contemporary touch by some of our finest writers.

Succinctly put, The Grapes Of Wrath opens A Noise Within’s Spring 2013 season with a resoundingly powerful emotional wallop … and then some.

A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
February 23, 2013
Photos: Craig Schwartz

Comments are closed.