|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 fiancée 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|