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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Review: Epic Win - The Grapes of Wrath

Tom McCamus, Evan Buling and Janet Wright. Photo: D. Hou

Based on the novel by John Steinbeck
Directed by Antoni Cimolino

The story: Tom Joad, in prison for four years for killing a man who had stabbed him during a brawl, returns to his homestead in 1930’s Oklahoma to find that the land has been repossessed by the bank and his family has cleared out – a fate shared by thousands in depression-era Oklahoma, the ‘dust-bowl’. Reunited, the twelve Joads plus former preacher Jim Casy pack all of their meager possessions into a run-down truck, and prepare to leave on the 1500-mile drive to California, where the promise of jobs and bright futures await… they hope.

Not everyone who uses the currently trendy word “epic” understands the full meaning of the word. They would only have to crack the spine of the novel The Grapes of Wrath to get an inkling of what it truly signifies – the struggles, heartaches, small victories and self-discoveries of a people. Or they could come see this season’s production.

“Epic” was the task faced by Frank Galati to adapt John Steinbeck’s 500-plus-page, Pulitzer-winning novel into a three-hour play. “Epic” was the feat of reengineering the Avon Stage to accommodate the weight of the Colorado River. “Epic” was the job of director Antoni Cimolino and his cast of twenty-one to effectively represent the thousands of displaced farmers hoping for better lives in utopian California, and the disillusionment that exploitation wreaked upon a generation. And “epic” is the biblical journey of the Joad Family from the wasteland of Oklahoma to their promised land.

The Joads see themselves as everyday people but are larger-than-life. Evan Buling plays Tom Joad, who comes to see that looking neither back nor forward will serve no-one’s future. He is a reluctant champion of the dispossessed, and Mr. Buling plays up the reluctance with harsh denial and occasional violence, creating a very nearly tragic hero of Tom. But with his exit and promise to keep fighting, one gets the sense that someday migrant workers will find the fair wages and livings they seek.
Victor Ertmanis, Chilina Kennedy, Janet Wright. Photo: D. Hou

Ma Joad (Janet Wright) comes to the fore as matriarch as Pa (Victor Ertmanis) fails as the family’s leader the longer their journey goes on. Ms. Wright’s fine portrayal of unrelenting stoicism in her Ma Joad is almost too unrelenting; the one crack Ma reveals after Granma’s death is near heartbreaking, and one wishes Ms. Wright would have found other such opportunities to reveal Ma’s vulnerability.  

No longer pious in the bible-thumping sense, Jim Casy (the former preacher-turned-unknowing-Marxist) has become a man of the people, patiently observant and ultimately Tom’s mentor. Actor Tom McCamus infuses this character with a wry, inscrutable wit that in less deft hands might feel overly sanctimonious or militant. As such, Casy is likeable as the mild insurrectionist, a credit to Mr. McCamus.

Some of the other Joads break away from the family as the play goes on, much to the worry of Ma – first the sweetly simple Noah (Steve Ross) feels he’s got to stay by the Colorado River, happy-go-lucky Al (the very cheeky Paul Nolan) decides to stay with his fiancĂ©e Aggie, not to mention the deaths of Granma, Granpa and the desertion of Connie, husband to Rose of Sharon.

Chilina Kennedy takes Rose of Sharon from being Tom’s bratty younger sister to a woman ready to step into her mother’s role as matriarch with great speed. Almost invisible in the first half of the play, she must endure the upset of unrealistic dreams, desertion, and a still-born baby by the end; director Antoni Cimolino keeps to the final ending that Frank Galati kept and Steinbeck fought to keep – it is different than the Henry Fonda movie, and I hope for Ms. Kennedy’s sake that all audiences appreciate her bravery and the scene’s gravity.

Other performances of note include Robert King, memorable as always, in the small roles of the desolate Man Coming Back and batty Mayor of Hooverville, Ian D. Clark as the sassy Granpa, Randy Hughson as the haunted Uncle John and John Vickery as the quietly menacing Camp Proprietor, one of many nameless intolerant thugs the Joads and other “Okies” (Oklahoma migrants) encounter along their way.

The Grapes of Wrath continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 29th. It is a truly “epic win” for the Festival.
Members of the cast. Photo: D. Hou


  1. What about the music throughout the play - most effective and superbly performed. Who is that handsome lead guitarist??? Not only a great voice, but looks too!

  2. The tall guy? Hey we noticed him too! Sweet pretty sad lead guitar lines. The girl fiddler accordion has great voice, beautiful harmonies. The lead singer brings different tough energy and it all works. Great review here by the way.

  3. Thanks, Anonymous! I know the other critics quibbled about the musicians, but since Galati wrote them into the play who am I to judge their inclusion? They were fine performers and I think the gospel/bluesy tone was just right. ~RG

  4. I was bored. Sorry. Within the first five minutes I had a feeling this was going to be a loooong night in the theater. The play lacked focus. There is no center. Too many characters speaking too many words. Too much going on and the trio of musicians DO NOT HELP. Sorry, but they don't- a total distraction from whatever dramatic tension exists in the first place. That one newspaper reviewer is right on the money here.

    Sure, the STORY is compelling but this particular PLAY isn't. You understand on an intellectual level the pain and suffering the Joads are experiencing but you don't FEEL it. They don't MOVE you. Well, they didn't move me. Two other friends I saw the play with felt the same way. At intermission I saw many people in the lobby yawning. Okay, so I'm harsh. But I call it like I see it.

    I blame the source material- sorry Mr. Gilati. I blame the direction- sorry, Mr. Cimilino. I blame several of the lead actors who are NOT compelling in their roles. I really wanted to like this show but to me it fell flat. Again, it just didn't move me.

  5. Anonymous, I may be biased, but a bad theatre experience in Stratford often is better than theatre you'll see anywhere else, and The Grapes of Wrath certainly isn't a euphoric story. The beauty of theatre is that the experience is different from production to production and show to show. That being said, it's too bad you didn't feel able to empathize with the plight of the characters - you might want to try the Henry Ford movie (complete with cinematic soundtrack designed to pluck heartstrings), or the sweeping original novel by Steinbeck for a different kind of experience. ~RG

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  8. This was one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever seen. I thought the acting and direction were spot on. I dont know how you could have been bored by the production and story. It's a tale of a family's economic and social devastation during the depression, as they fall to the fringes of society....and has many echos with todays economic woes.

    I am a bit neutral about the music. It was an interesting transition device, but I was more into the main story and characters.

    Chilina Kennedy's scene at the end - as the Rose of Sharon - a young, grief bereft mom, who has nothing,...yet still gives of herself with kindness (I wont reveal the details) to save another wretched poor old man, was so incredibly moving. Through the last scenes her labor pains echo throughout the theatre while her family battles a violent flood... I was actually sobbing through the ending (Rose of Sharon's sacrifice) and in tears as the ensemble took their bow. Janet Wright was brilliant as the stoic Ma, as was Tom McCamus and Evan Buling.


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