Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck adapted by Frank Galati

Foreground (L-R) Deborah Strang (Ma Joad), Nicholas Neve (Winfield Joad), Andrew Hellenthal (Al Joad). Background (L-R) Mark Jacobson (Noah Joad), Lindsey Ginter (Pa Joad), Steve Coombs (Tom Joad).

By Joe Straw

“I’ll be ever’where-wherever you look.  Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Wherever they’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there.  If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.  An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in houses they build-why I’ll be there.” – Tom Joad

I think I said, “How’s the 405 this afternoon?”

“I haven’t heard anything.” – was the response.

So we started our noble journey on Saturday from West LA, two hours early with plenty of time to get to East Pasadena and more than enough time to see The Grapes of Wrath at A Noise Within Theatre. But before we’re on the freeway at Venice and Sepulveda, I noticed heavy traffic on the freeway overpass.

“Maybe the 405 is not a good idea.”  I said from that noise within.  Or maybe I said it out loud. 

Nevertheless we get on the 405 Freeway and, forty-five minutes later, we’ve made it to Olympic, less than a mile away. 

So we make a quick decision to abandon the 405 and get on the Santa Monica Freeway. That freeway was better but not great, downtown was worse, and the 5 North was just plain - nasty.  One hour and thirty minutes later and the traffic on the 5 Freeway is at a complete standstill. 

I texted Laura Stegman, press representative, asking if ANW performance starts promptly at 2:00 p.m., and she replied “2:01 p.m.”

Now the sweat is pouring down my back, my legs are becoming numb, and my hair is frizzing and standing up.  That noise within kept telling me that we were not going to make it, to turn the car around and head back home. 

But, suddenly there is an opening, and flying east, with 10 minutes to spare, we make it.  

So glad we did make it! The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, adapted by Frank Galati, and directed by Michael Michetti at A Noise Within Theatre, is a magnificent achievement and a moving tribute to the words of John Steinbeck.  This is an exceptional production.  Frank Galati’s three-hour masterpiece, under Michetti’s direction moves along as swiftly and with as much force as the Colorado River.  Do not miss this production!

Upon entering the theatre, it doesn’t take long to imagine the dust bowl atmosphere, and Garry Lennon’s remarkable costumes takes us to that moment in time.

Oklahomans are optimists and they make the best of it with a free concert for dust bowl refugees.  A “Hobo’s Lullaby” and other songs get us into the spirit of the times.

And, in a quiet moment after the band has left, Casy (Matt Gottlieb) in bare feet sits down and, on the harmonica, starts a mournful rendition of “Yes Sir, That’s my Baby” when he is approached by Tom Joad (Steve Coombs).  

Tom recognizes Casy as the preacher and, as a way of getting reacquainted; Tom offers him a swig on his factory liquor. Casy then confesses the sins that he has committed with female parishioners and that he is no longer a preacher.  

And while there’s confessing going on Tom unloads his misdemeanors.

“Didn’t you hear about me?  I was in the papers.” – Tom

“No-I never.  What?” – Casy

“I been in McAlester them four years.” – Tom

Tom tells Casy about his time in prison for killing a man after the man put a knife in him. Tom doesn’t say where the knife was stuck in him he just “Knocked his head plumb to squash.” Nevertheless, Tom is on his way to see his folks and Casy asks if he can come along.

But when they get there, the imaginary fence is unlatched, the weathered farmhouse is deserted, and the grey slats that once held together a home are loose, broken off, and not fit to keep the dust out.

“They’re gone – or Ma’s dead.  If Ma was anywhere about, that gate’d be shut an’ hooked.  That’s the one thing she always done – seen that gate was shut...” – Tom

“If I was still a preacher I’d say the arm of the Lord has struck.  But now I don’t know what happened.” – Casy

The moonlight peering in the infrequent slanting beams allow Tom to light a candle. Muley, a neighbor walking around in a daze, says Tom’s family are at Uncle Johns and are ready to shove out west, that the bank put a bull dozer to ol’ Tom’s house, and force them all out.

“Why they kickin’ folks off the lan’?” – Casy

“Bank can’t afford to keep no tenants.  Them sons-a bitches.  Them dirty sons-a-bitches.  I tell ya, men, I’m stayin’. They ain’t getting’ rid a me. – Muley

Somebody approaches and the three of them hide. Pride and anger get the better of Tom as he rises in his own home and watches the men leave.

“I never thought I’d be hidin’ out on my old man’s place.” – Tom  

Later, Tom shows up unexpectedly and first meets up with his Pa (Lindsey Ginter) who’s fixing up the truck to make it ready for the drive out west. Pa wants to know if he busted out.  Tom says he’s been paroled. There is quietness about Pa’s greeting, not really receiving Tom as a family member who has been away, but rather a family member convicted of murder.  

“You remember the preacher, Pa. He come along with me.” – Tom

“He been in prison too?” – Pa

“No, I met him on the road.  He’s been away.” – Tom

“Glad to be here.  It’s a thing to see when a boy comes home.  It’s a thing to see.” – Casy

“Home.” – Pa

(There is a silent brood after the word “home” is spoken. The irony of calling something home is now a chattel, a chattel that an authoritative banking official deemed necessary to bulldoze.) 

Pa welcomes Casy and calls Ma (Deborah Strang) to meet a couple of fellas who are looking for a bite to eat. Ma Joad, never turning away a hungry human being, yells out for them to wash up when she finally sees her boy, Tommy.  And as excited as she is, she takes a slight breath only to ask if he’s busted out.  

Grandpa (Gary Ballard) and Grandma (Jill Hill) join the mix welcoming Tom back home.

“I always said Tom would come bustin’ out a that jail like a bull through a corral fence.  An’ you done it!” – Grandpa

“I didn’t bust out.  They Lemme out.” – Tom

“Get out of my way.  I’m hungry.” – Tom

While Tom has been away, his sister Rose of Sharon (Lili Fuller) has married Connie (Jesse Peri) and they are expecting a baby. Al (Andrew Hellenthal), Tom’s younger brother, is now driving the truck and will be driving them to California. Noah (Mark Jacobsen), Tom’s slightly touched brother, greets him as though he had not been gone four years. Eye twitching, tobacco jawin’ Uncle John greets him with a profound respect. Grandma asks the ex-preacher Casy to give thanks for the meal. And Casy lets it be known that he would like to go out west with them.

“Kin we feed a extra mouth?  Kin we Ma?” – Pa

“It ain’t kin we!  It’s will we?... I never heared tell of no Joads or no Hazletts, neither, ever refusin’ food an’ shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked.” – Ma

Ma grabs her bibelot, a music box; with the two things she must take on her journey, earrings wrapped in lace, symbolic of better times.

And with the dust choking their inner being, and the dawn closing in behind them, thirteen souls cram into their god-forsaken truck and start their journey to California. The automobile becomes the linchpin that holds this family together.   

And in the dark, optimism stares back at them from the west, calling them into the darkness and into the silence and nothingness.  Staring out into the blackness, Granpa says he “ain’t a goin’” but with the help of demulcent syrup they manage to hustle him into the back of the truck and off they go.  

Lessons are learned on this journey and not everyone makes it, some die, some just plain leave, but they all start the journey with high hopes that all will be good when they reach the rich and green valleys of California.

The journey to A Noise Within was well worth the trip.  The work is terrific and the craft by the performers sublime.  It is a pleasure watching all actors pitching in and doing what needs to be done on stage. And this is what makes theatre so great and life so wonderful, witnessing performances that take you away.

(L to R) Andrew Hellenthal (Al Joad), Lindsey Ginter (Pa Joad), Nicholas Neve (Winfield Joad), Deborah Strang (Ma Joad), Ranya Jaber (Ruthie Joad), Matt Gottlieb (Jim Casy), Josh Clark (Uncle John Joad), Mark Jacobson (Noah Joad), Steve Coombs (Tom Joad), Jesse Peri (Connie Rivers), and Lili Fuller (Rose of Sharon)

Matt Gottlieb as Jim Casy is terrific.  Life has created doubts in his sinful being but he still believes he has a purpose and he searches for that purpose. And even though he has lost the “callin’” he has to make up for being lost in the wilderness and guides a path for his fellow human beings.  This is marvelous work by Matt Gottlieb.

Steve Coombs is excellent as Tom Joad.  He has a very nice look and a rougher exterior for Tom than one would imagine.  Joad must tow the fine line of a parolee. But he believes he must rise to the injustices he sees around him everyday. And each injustice is a brick on life’s scaffolding until the scaffolding bends and the weight on Tom’s shoulders inches him closer to taking justice. Coombs does a remarkable job and one would like him move one more level to add to a very nice performance.

 Lindsey Ginter as Pa Joad has a quiet dignity.  He is slow and methodical in his approach to life always giving over the decision making to his wife.  He loves his son but is suddenly shocked to see him on the day they leave for California recognizing a dangerous element to their journey.

Deborah Strang plays Ma Joad and she is absolutely wonderful. Ma Joad wants to keep her family together in hopes of a better life. Although she’s made to decision to leave Tom, she is conflicted about doing so. She hopes he will follow—she wants to hold the family together because she knows there is strength in numbers. Strang does tremendous work.  Her choices are specific, and her character has many layers.  There is a moment when she gives away the thing that she prizes most in her life, her earrings, to her daughter.  You can absolutely feel that moment breaking her heart. Strang’s Ma Joad is intelligent and filled with optimism and compassions and this is a woman who will stop at nothing to see that her family has a better life. Her performance is a work of art.

(L-R) Josh Clark (Uncle John Joad) & Matt Gottlieb (Jim Casy)

Josh Clark gives a remarkable performance as Uncle John Joad.  He is a brooding and a quiet self-contemplating man.  He never gives up his past living with a self-inflicting pain that follows him like a bad shadow. Clark creates a wonderful reality to this character and it’s hard to take your eyes off the character and the truth of his craft.  

Lili Fuller is captivating as Rose of Sharon. This is a character that looks toward the future without fulfilling the necessities of the present and it gets her into a lot of trouble.

Jesse Peri plays Connie Rivers, Rose of Sharon’s husband.  Connie is not much of a husband.  He speaks about learning a trade but never moves in that direction.  He has dreams but decides going back home working on tractors is probably best for him and so he deserts his pregnant wife.

Andrew Hellenthal does a nice job as Al Joad a younger version of his older brother only with a little less fight in him and a lot more loving. The character has a lot of enthusiasm that comes with age.  He wants to leave and see the exciting things that are ahead of him.

Mark Jacobson plays Noah a character that is slightly “touched”.  Although he is none too bright he is aware of his station in life. He is unaware that his brother has been in prison for years, he treats him as though he never left. Despite his mental failings, he is aware that his Ma and Pa don’t really care for him and, as he scans the horizon, he sees the Colorado River is the right place for him. Nice work!

Gary Ballard is delightful as Grampa and a number of other roles.  A slight problem is that Ballard has such a distinctive look that after Grampa dies; he comes back very recognizable in the other roles. Still, Ballard’s work is remarkable.

Jill Hill does some amazing work as Granma and Elizabeth Sandry.  As Granma, she holds her hands up praising “Gawd” and not letting the preacher get away without saying grace and putting in a word about going to California. And as Elizabeth Sandry, a Christian, who cast serious judgment against those whose Christian beliefs are not her own. And Hill does it with so much conviction.  It is wonderful work and simply a marvelous craft.  

Matt Foyer does a very nice job with the Man Going Back role. He is a starving broken man that tries to talk sense to those heading west. His right hand balled in an arthritic fist as he speaks of his children dying from starvation.  “Them children died of heart failure.” He tries hard to make his point desperately trying to convince folks, moving out west, to stop and go back.  But he just can’t convince them.  And so, he walks alone into the night.

Ranya Jaber and Nicholas Neve play Ruthie Joad and Winfield Joad respectively and they do a fine job supporting the cast. Fionn James as Boy In The Barn does a nice job as well.

Support members of the ensemble were also responsible for the seamless work on stage and each in their own right have very distinctive looks.  They are Dorrie Braun, Douglas Rory Milliron, James Ferrero, Kristina Teves, Caleb Austin, Henry Funk, Cristina Gerla and Jennifer Losi.

Other members of the ensemble and musicians were Guerin Barry, Matt Foyer, Robert Oriol, Stephen Rockwell and Korey Simeone who kept us in that dramatic time period.

Michael Michetti, the director, takes us on a thrilling ride, on a Hudson Super-Six, and it is a terrific journey.  There is a wonderful truth in Michetti’s direction, so deep in style, purpose, and it touches the very heart of one’s being. So many of the small details are played to perfection. All of it hits home.

I loved Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  The remarkable characters are brought to a life in this truly magnificent play. There is so much authentic life it is hard to leave the theatre. (Soak it all in and go home a better person.)

Wonderfully produced by A Noise Within Producing Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. 

Robert Oriol, the Sound Designer, does remarkable work in creating the atmosphere of the place.  One that really touched home was the clock sound in the deserted home.  A clock is the only sound you hear when there’s no one left in the house.

And the wonderful photos were taken by Craig Schwartz. 

Other members of this remarkable crew are as follows:

Lana Marks (Stage Manager)
Melissa Ficociello (Scenic Designer)
Garry Lennon (Costume Designer)
Monica Lisa Sabedra (Wig/Make-Up Designer)
Elizabeth Harper (Lighting Designer)
Melissa Ficociello (Prop Designer)
Amy Hughson (Assistant Props Master)
Meghan Gray (Production Manager)
Seth Walter (Technical Director)
Maria Uribe (Lead Seamstress)
Alfonso Ramirez (Assistant Director Intern)
Ken Merckx (Fight Choreographer)
Nike Doukas (Dialect Coach)
Justin Eick (Movement Choreographer)

Sunday, Feb 24, at 2pm
Saturday, Mar 3, at 2pm
Saturday, Mar 3, at 8pm
Sunday, Mar 4, at 2pm
Sunday, Mar 24, at 2pm
Sunday, Mar 24, at 7pm
Thursday, Apr 11, at 8pm
Friday, Apr 12, at 8pm
Saturday, Apr 20, at 8pm
Sunday, Apr 21, at 2pm
Friday, May 3, at 8pm
Saturday, May 11, at 2pm
Saturday, May 11, at 8pm

Run!  And take a friend who likes to journey into the unknown.


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