Trinity Rep’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is Mesmerizing Theater

Sep 11, 2013

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath adapted by Frank Galati, directed by Brian McEleney, set design by Michael McGarty, lighting design by John Ambrosone, costume design by William Lane.
Credit Mark Turek / Trinity Rep

Let’s just say it right up front. Directed with bold assertion by Brian McEleney, on a kooky set that somehow works by designer Michael McGarty, “The Grapes of Wrath” is mesmerizing theater. With its quicksilver pace, its heartfelt performing and all-American drive, this production ranks among the best in Trinity’s history of taking on big deals and making them individual, and accessible.

Adapted by Frank Galati of the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, Steinbeck’s1939 story depicts the heartrending but brave picture of Oklahomans forced off their farms by the Depression. They moved west in huge numbers to what they believed was the Promised Land, California. Their disappointment, their travails, their hanging in there, is nothing short of the best of Americana.

But it’s also a bear to put on stage. The 1940 movie by John Ford with Henry Fonda as the protagonist, Tom Joad, was a splendid film. But then the sprawling novel was practically made for the movies.

In the theater, shifting a whole bunch of cantankerous folk thousands of miles is a whole different thing. Galati’s text is both sharp and insightful. And at Trinity, director McEleney has chosen to go for broke.

When you walk in to the downstairs Dowling Theater you see the 300 or so seats turned, for the first time, into a theater-in-the-round. In the middle sit some ticket buyers, right there in front of the bar. Bar? Why a bar complete with a clanky cash register and old fashioned radio? I never did figure that out. But when you see that saloon transformed in your mind into a river bank with actors jumping into the “quote” water, when you watch, in the best Trinity tradition, as actor seize chairs and blankets and all kinds of other stuff and magically turn the mess into a car headed for California, well, you forget your misgivings and get right in this great story.

Speaking of actors, this production is filled is filled with fine work both individual and ensemble. Supplemented by what seems legions of young performers from the Brown/Trinity training school who take multiple roles with aplomb, this production never slows, never loses the drive that makes the 2 ½ hour run time pass so quickly.

There’s pulsating original music, too, by a band called 3pile, and vibrant, plaintive singing by Sherri Eldin, all from Trinity/Brown.

Among the lead roles there’s Joe Wilson, Jr. as a self-defrocked preacher. He is marvelous in his desire to do good and his self-hatred for having done bad.

There’s Anne Scurria as the family matriarch. She’s brilliant, controlled and forceful, a woman sacrificing all for the greater good.

And then there is Stephen Thorne as Tom Joad, the ex-con fighting to save his family and hold himself in check. Both likeable and tough as hell, Thorne turns his boy/man into someone we all know, warts and all. And when he and Scurria, son and mother, stand in midst of the that bar, in the midst of all the chaos in “The Grapes of Wrath”  and she simply tells him “We are the people” and adds that they will last. . ., Well, shivers come to your spine. The moment is a quiet cry for our beloved country.

And it carries through this play, this splendid production, this great story of that time, and our time.

Want to Go?

“The Grapes of Wrath” continues at Trinity Rep through October 6th.