RIPPED TO RAGS IN A BEAUTIFUL WAY
John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book award-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath operates as both a harrowing portrait of the American struggle for life, liberty, and happiness, and an impassioned rally cry for the downtrodden; it is a fitting title (suggested by the writer’s wife) considering it derives from both a passage in the apocalyptic book of Revelation and a lyric from the American Civil War inspired song “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In 1988, Frank Galati premiered his stage adaptation of the novel at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago; two years later, he received the Tony Award for Best Play for its Broadway production. Written towards the end of the Great Depression seventy-four years ago, and adapted shortly after the crash of 1987, Wrath arrives timely in 2013 at A Noise Within towards what one hopes is the end of the Great Recession.
The widely read dust bowl tale chronicles the Joad family’s jalopy-riding journey to California and their quest to find a better life, and for this family of Oklahoma sharecroppers it merely means finding farm work. The Golden State has its share of great fortune, but as the Joads slowly realize, it is only shared by a select few. The Joads endure continual defeats and deaths during their bitter trek, and the story zeroes in on how they handle it; the 619-page novel is pared down to a bullion-sized 160 minute run time (with a fifteen minute intermission). The combination of Galati’s excellent adaptation and Michael Michetti’s exhilarating direction provides A Noise Within a superb production with inspired staging, smart pacing, and a tremendous ensemble of twenty-seven performers.
It is best to arrive at least a half hour before the show starts, because there is a “free dust-bowl concert” that involves many members of the multi-talented ensemble singing old folk songs in a bluegrass style accompanied by guitars, mandolin, fiddles, spoons, and double bass. Bathed by the hearty singing and toe-tapping playing, it soaks us into the dusty environment wonderfully furnished by Melissa Ficociello’s scanty and dilapidated scenic design. One creative element (also designed by Ficociello) is the Joads’ truck, which is constructed on stage by the Joads from their furniture and belongings including lanterns as headlights, a bicycle wheel as a steering apparatus, and suitcases as seats. Garry Lennon’s dirty and worn costumes serve the piece in a realistic and faithful manner and Elizabeth Harper’s lighting is nuanced and effective.
Deborah Strang is the standout as matriach Ma Joad with a full-bodied performance from start to fade-out propelled by her fierce resolve and earthy tenderness; a scene where she operates as doctor, midwife, and deliverer of her daughter Rose of Sharon’s baby is particularly masterful in showcasing her determined nature and comforting nurture. Steve Coombs’ muted interpretation of parole breaker-turned-family man Tom Joad rides a wave of subtle discontent with fire and ire rising as the play progresses. Matt Gottlieb’s matter of fact effortless ease as Jim Casy is a bit jarring, but as his philosophical musings and sobering lamentations become the bedrock of his transformation from a disaffected ex-preacher to an impassioned leader of men, he becomes magnetic and riveting. Gary Ballard deserves plaudits for his scene-stealing wily turn as Grampa Joad and for his distinctive characterizations as an ensemble member. Jill Hill’s Granma Joad is similarly wily, but what makes her performance great is how she uses it as the fuel to compel others to be like herself; a refined and distinguished dusty Okie. Lili Fuller gives a heart wrenching performance as Rose of Sharon, effectively portraying the evolution of a self-absorbed, wide-eyed naïve wife to a gracious, mothering woman weary and grieving.
Steinbeck famously said his purpose in writing Wrath was to “rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied…I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived, not the way books are written.” A Noise Within’s production is agonizing but beautifully realized; it is an excellent example of how a classic text ought to be presented. They are indebted to Michael Michetti who weaves all the elements together in an exquisite fashion and serves Steinbeck’s celebrated work with a riveting immediacy and inventive flair that does indeed rip you to rags.
photos by Craig Schwartz
The Grapes of Wrath
A Noise Within in Pasadena
scheduled to end on May 11, 2013
for tickets, visit http://www.ANoiseWithin.org