From The Past, Contemporary Themes
This fall the Cardinal Stage Company and Indiana University's ‘Themester' come together, for an ambitious production of Frank Galati's adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck's novel follows an Oklahoma family fleeing the dust bowl, that devastating result of agricultural overuse and climate change. It's the story of people who desperately want to work, yet can't find jobs, even when they migrate. Some folks help, but more take advantage of his characters' plight.
The story resonates with a contemporary audience, especially today, with the threat of global warming and plenty of people on the move in search of work.
'It's A Beast'
The Cardinal Stage Company's director Randy White describes the play as "a beast." One of the biggest shows the company has taken on, it offers some real challenges to the director and set designer Chib Gratz. White and Gratz decided on an alley set, with actors in the middle and the audience on both sides. The rough look works well. They've managed to creatively evoke a heavily laden truck, a park dance floor, a labor camp, a stream with enough water for three men to bathe in, and even a thunderstorm with drenching rain.
With so much going on, White's challenge in rehearsal must have been a bit like a sports coach whose various team members practice different skills in different parts of the field. Nevertheless, he makes it flow with impressive efficiency.
Well, What Did You Think?
Sometimes listeners say that they wish I would simply say what I think about a play. They don't want to have to read between the lines. Well, the answer is this: I don't really like Frank Galati's play. Despite the charm of Mike Price as Preacher Casey, the first scenes are overly freighted with a theology about "one big soul" that seems trite, even from him. Characters often appear so briefly that their impact is lost, and the second act is crowded with too many themes.
That said, I wouldn't want to have missed several simple but electrifying moments, such as when Diane Kondrat (Ma Joad) sees her son Tom returned from prison, or, her powerful traversal of that role later on.I'd appreciate my memory of Henry Fonda in Ford's film less if I hadn't seen Dan Waller as the tormented Tom. Ken Farrell as the silly Grandpa and the even stranger Mayor of Hooverville was a treat. Music Director Dan Lodge-Rigal and his playing actors ably highlight moments and form a transition from scene to scene.
I could go on about individual performances and scenes. As director White says, "It's a beast," but a fascinating one.
Endings And The End
Let me wrap up by talking about the ending. Those of us who are familiar with The Grapes of Wrath because of John Ford's film or Woodie Guthrie's ballad know two different but effective ways to conclude the tale. In the film, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad gives that triumphantly optimistic speech: "…We're the people…" In the last stanza of Guthrie's "Tom Joad," Tom makes a ghostly pledge to "…be there…" in times of adversity for the working class.
In the play, Diane Kondrat gives Ma's speech, in a lower, yet still moving key in the middle of the play. Dan Waller delivers a moving presentation of Tom's farewell a little later. Yet the play's final scene is an incredibly moving and grim one. Kondrat delivers a line heard several times during the evening, "…a man got to do what he got to do…." She is encouraging her daughter, Rose of Sharon (Lisa Ermel), who has just given birth to a stillborn child, to offer her breast to a dying man.