John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” about the plight of an Oklahoma farm family escaping the devastation of the Dust Bowl for a better life in California, captivated a nation still climbing out of the Great Depression.
The story of the Joad family and the obstacles they faced battling nature and those with money and authority had a powerful impact. And it’s still there in Frank Galati’s stage adaptation, in the compelling and highly theatrical production by Asolo Repertory Theatre.
In fact, in an era with a growing disparity between the haves and have nots and Congressional debates about how government assistance to the poor is wasted money handed out to lazy people, the play may be more potent than when it premiered more than 25 years ago at Steppenwolf Theatre.
There’s a dusty, dirty, hard-scrabble quality to Michael Donald Edwards’ production, from the way his large cast speaks and moves to B. Modern’s worn-looking costumes, Scott Bradley’s set of broken barn walls, hidden surprises and a cracked-earth floor, and Paul Miller’s lighting, which depicts danger and bright hopes.
The production, with a cast of 28 (including three singers), moves almost effortlessly on a 2,000 mile journey in the Joad’s overloaded jalopy, which twists and turns across the stage.
Far from being freeloaders, the Joads only want to find a place where they can work hard for a fair wage. But they pay a huge price on that trip to California. They will lose family members and encounter thousands just like them hoping to find promised jobs.
And they keep running against authority, whether it’s a campground supervisor who imagines his own sense of power or real police who favor corporate bosses to keep the people under control and wanting.
Against all the sorrow, the play has a surprising spirit of humor, particularly in the opening act when this family is looking forward to an adventure.
The family is beautifully and effectively led by Peggy Roeder as the proud and fiercely determined Ma Joad, who inspires everyone, including the audience, with her words of encouragement and how to survive moment to moment. She lets us see how Ma keeps her emotions in check with practicality. That is evident when she is reunited with her son Tom (Christian Conn), who returns home after a four-year jail sentence for killing a man in a bar fight.
Conn plays Tom with a friendly demeanor tinged with sadness. He has inherited his mother’s strong will and is quick to defend the average guy being unfairly treated, which gets him into more trouble.
Andrew Sellon, almost unrecognizable from his other Asolo Rep roles this season, is funny and touching as the former Rev. Jim Casy, who finds a new kind of calling on the trip. Kristen Lynne Blossom is sweet and innocent to the world as the Joad’s pregnant daughter Rose of Sharon. Douglas Jones as Pa Joad and David Breitbarth as his brother, John, bring out their characters’ strengths and weaknesses. David S. Howard and Carolyn Michel have fun as the feisty grandparents.
Composer Tim Grimm and two singing musicians add to the period flavor and comment on the situations singing folk songs. There also are some strong contributions from Bernard Balbot, Jefferson McDonald, Don Walker, Brian Nemiroff and Ann-Marie Cusson and others.
There are moments that border on comical shtick, but they lighten the mood.
“The Grapes of Wrath” can (and should) stir feelings of anger at those in power, but it also inspires us to work harder to be the best we can, appreciate what we have, and help those in need.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH
Adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel by Frank Galati. Directed by Michael Donald Edwards. Reviewed March 14, Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Through April 19. 351-8000; asolorep.org