Trinity Rep's "Grapes of Wrath": The Milk of Human Kindness

Trinity Rep’s fiftieth season opener is “The Grapes of Wrath”, adapted in 1988 by Frank Galati for the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago from John Steinbeck’s book and dedicated to his widow Elaine. Subsequently it was produced on Broadway and won the 1990 Tony Award for Best Play. Starring a then-unknown Gary Sinese as Tom Joad, the recently paroled member of the Joad Family, it was their story of being kicked off their land by the bank and their 1938 trek from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California. Though reluctant to leave (because “a feller gets used to a place, it’s hard to go”) they are forced to pull up roots and head for the promised land of employment opportunity. As the first
Narrator puts it: “The corn could go, as long as something else remained…women studied the men’s faces secretly…to tell whether this time the men would break”. And break they did, at least as far as keeping up any hope of remaining on the land they had once made fertile. As the character of the former preacher Casy says about their shared hopelessness: “the spirit ain’t in the people much no more… maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of” (which Tom recalls later near the end of the play). It‘s only “when they’re all workin’ together, that’s holy”. As in Steinbeck‘s novel, much of the meaning of their plight is expressed by Casy. When he observes that theirs is a one-way migration, he marvels that “it’s like a whole country movin’ (west)”. Along the way, there are many hints of dire conditions at the end of their travels, deaths of both the elderly and the newborn, and a whole lot of denial. But Ma Joad remains steadfast (“It ain’t kin we, it’s will we?”) and never looks back at the farm, as “it’s just the road goin’ by for me”, that is, not the past and not the future, only the present matters.

This play is a perfect choice for Trinity Rep to start its fiftieth season, both because of the company’s depth of bench (in its true repertory of players) and its versatile venue. It’s clear from the moment one enters the theater to the music of the seven-piece band known as “3pile” (composed of Brown University students Ben Grills, Nikki Massoud, Ted Moller, Alex Curtis, Matt E. Russell, Sherri Eldin and Zdenko Martin) that this is a novel approach to the novel, beginning with Martin’s spiel to the audience about exits and cell phones. Each one of these multi-talented singer/actors play supporting roles in the work, and all are splendid. The meatiest parts are impeccably played by very familiar members of the resident company, headed by Stephen Thorne (Tom), Anne Scurria (Ma), Joe Wilson, Jr. (Casy), Richard Donelly (Pa), Jessica Crandall (Rose of Sharon), Fred Sullivan, Jr. (Uncle John), Janice Duclos (Granma) and Stephen Berenson (Grampa). They’re joined by two newly added resident members Charlie Thurston (Muley) and Mia Ellis (Mrs. Wainwright), both of them welcome indeed. Rarely do we get the opportunity to see this huge company all play together, and it’s a treat for us as much as it appears to be for them. Although this is a successful team effort, one would be remiss if mention weren’t made of the sublimely controlled power in Scurria’s performance that breaks our hearts, and the complexity in the creative evolution of Thorne’s central role that nourishes our souls.

Director Brian McEleney elicits fine performances from the entire cast, choosing to let his actors (rather than, as in previous productions of the play, effects like troughs of water, fires and working automobiles) convey the strong message of taking care of one another. He has described his vision as interior storytelling about music, poetry and people, with the folk-rock songs composed by students Eldin and Martin as a counterpoint to the story. The sets (designed by Michael McGarty) are minimalist, often constructed by the cast in the style of productions of “Nicholas Nickleby”, “A Man of No Importance” or “Les Miserables”. The lighting design by John Ambrosone keeps us focused on each cast member as she or he carries the plotlines, enhanced by the complex sound design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz. All of the technical effects combine to help advance the tale of the troubles of the Joad Family, the emergence of Tom Joad’s social consciousness under the influence of Casy, and the plight of migrant farm workers (then and now). McEleney’s choice to keep it simple and utilize contemporary music is a brilliant one, as it makes a classic literary source seem all the more relevant.

As Ma puts it, “us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone…we’re the people that live…we go on”. As they reach their goal of the California fruit farms, Tom adds “we sure ain’t bringin’ nothing’ with us”, and that his “grandparents wouldn’t’ve seen it, it’s for the youngsters who are really seeing it”, but he’s partly wrong. Men see life as a series of jerks, Ma pronounces, whereas women see life as a flowing river. It takes a while for Tom to see this, in the iconic words “Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there…Whenever there’s a cop beatin’ up on a guy, I’ll be there…and whenever our folks eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there”. As the play ends, Rose of Sharon offers the sacrifice embodying the milk of human kindness in the most profoundly moving scene. Steinbeck’s title (a reference to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and its Old Testament sources about the wickedness in the world) is ironic, in that he emphasizes the valiant, often fruitless, struggle of good people. This wondrous production echoes the somewhat clumsy (yet both simple and profound) grace before a meal voiced by Casy. He (and we) should be “glad that there’s love here”.

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