Theatre Review: “The Grapes of Wrath” by Cardinal Stage Company

Last Sunday I drove south to Bloomington, Indiana to see the professional Cardinal Stage Company’s presentation of a drama called “The Grapes of Wrath.”  It was directed by Cardinal’s Artistic Director Randy White, using Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1940 Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

What the Show is About

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, a family that used to own land in Oklahoma, then share-cropped it, and now has been pushed off it into dusty homelessness, travels to greener California in hopes of finding work and a new home.  Unfortunately, thousands of other families are in the same situation and there is very little work or help or hope to be found.

It is a story about the desperate journey of this one particular extended family, the Joads, but it is also a story about American spirit and strength…and American greed and cruelty…with lots of stuff to chew on about religion and stewardship.

Artistic Considerations

WHAT a powerful show this is.  Oh.  My.  Goodness.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is presented by Cardinal in conjunction with Indiana University’s College of Arts and Sciences’ current “themester.” According to a greeting by Associate Dean Stephen Watt in the deliciously meaty Student Companion booklet that came with my “Grapes of Wrath” program, IU started doing themesters in 2009.  A themester is a “semester-long program that combines academic courses, public lectures and exhibits, film showings, and other events” connected to the topic.  It is “intended to engage students and the entire community in a collective learning experience about a timely, even urgent, issue.  The current theme is “Sustainability: Thriving on a Small Planet.”  You can read more about it at http://themester.indiana.edu.

I confess that I love the idea of a themester.  It sort of makes me wish I still lived in Bloomington, or at least that I could live in two places at once.  However, I didn’t know anything about that when I went to see “The Grapes of Wrath.”  You don’t need to know or care anything about themesters or classics or anything academic in order to enjoy the show.

(You don’t need to read the Student Companion, either, but it’s worth perusing.  I appreciate the work that Cardinal’s Director of Educational Outreach, Ellen MacKay, and several others put into it.  It even includes an interview with one of my long-time literary heroes, Scott Russell Sanders.)

I also confess that I have not read John Steinbeck’s novel – or even the Sparknotes – nor seen John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation.  You don’t need to have done any of that, either, to enjoy Cardinal’s show.

However, if you have done all that and you’re wondering how the show compares to the movie or the novel, I can tell you that I peeked at Wikipedia when I got home and…the show’s ending is true to the novel rather than the movie.

Other than that, though, I don’t know how they compare.  I don’t know, for example, if lines such as “The women secretly studied their men’s faces…the corn could go as long as something else remained” and “Those Okies are like gorillas – they don’t know any better” and “We’re not bums, we’re looking for work!” were taken directly from John Steinbeck or crafted by Frank Galati.

I confess that I don’t really care.  This show made me want to read the novel, but it is worth seeing all by itself and that is what is most important to me.  I was moved many times to tears of sympathy and rage by the words in this show and by the actors’ delivery of them, even as I was also thrilled by the many little surprises and pleasures of theatre art that have been incorporated into the staging of this show.

The audience members sit on risers on either side of the long stage area that extends through the middle of the auditorium.  Chib Gratz’ clever set design is eloquently lit by Patrick Mero.  Set pieces pop up and slide down in unexpected ways to reveal different locations and the lighting subtly suggests how to feel about them.  Mike Price’s sound design, Sarah Sandberg’s props design, and Lori Garraghty’s stage management seamlessly work with the set and lighting design to make us forget that we are in modern-day Indiana and feel instead as if we are with the 12 cramped Joad family members hanging on to our dreams for dear life in the back of a broken down truck on our bumpy way down Route 66 to the land of milk and honey.  Campfire flames, the splashing water of a river, the hard metal of chain link fences, and lots of dusty, dusty earth are all part of the journey.  When you walk past the the Joad’s wagon/truck during intermission, you feel as if you’re walking past something real from a museum.  A sign in the lobby says that some of the musical instruments are actual period pieces on loan from collectors.  Angie Burkhardt-Malone’s costume design includes dirty bare feet and ankles.   The attention to detail in every aspect of the show is exquisite. 

Music is a seamless part of the storytelling, too – music played on fiddle, spoons, and more, and sung as part of the narration in the form of barbershop, ballads, hymns, and more.  Actor Dan Lodge-Rigal is the music director.  The band includes him plus actors Dave Cole, Kevin Lee Guthridge, Katie Hicks, and Doug Johnson.  Lauren Frederick is the choreographer; there is a beautiful scene in which everyone “gets to reeling” in a square dance.

And the acting?  Ah, the acting is also superb.

Diane Kondrat’s portrayal of the weary-strong-gentle matriarch, Ma Joad, is layered and wonderful, truly wonderful.  Dan Waller’s portrayal of the son, Tom Joad, who is out on parole after killing another man in self-defense, is brilliant and intriguing, too.  He swears to Ma that he didn’t get “the madness” while he was in prison, and for a long time he is the solid, dependable person that she and everyone else needs him to be, but prison is not the only thing that can make a person go mad.

Gerald Pauwels is admirable as the strong but human Pa Joad.  Greg Buse plays alcoholic Uncle John, tormenting himself over questions of sin.  Mike Price is the former preacher, Jim Casy, a fascinating mix of honesty, humility and irony traveling with the family for a while.

Lisa Ermel is the dreamy, whiny (yet understandably so) pregnant daughter, Rose of Sharon.  Her even dreamier and ineffectual husband, Connie Rivers, is played with effectiveness by Alex Gulck.

Kyle Hendricks plays young stud Al Joad, whose only interests are girls (of course) and trucks (thank goodness.)  Zoe Reed and Jeffrey Parker are each convincing as the youngest children of the family, Ruthie and Winfield Joad.  Patty Blanchfield, Philip Brewer, Stacy Brewer, Jessica Ciucci, Alan Craig, Kevin Lee Guthridge, Steve Heise, Alexandra Lucas, Ethan Philbeck, Marlena Wagschal round out the ensemble in a variety of characters that the Joads meet along their journey.

Some actors play multiple roles and their versatility and control over subtle differences are as impressive as the individual portrayals themselves.   Ken Ferrell, for example, is funny and sympathetic as resistant-to-change Grampa Joad but later appears as the pitiful and truly mentally unbalanced Mayor of Hooverville.   Kate Braun appears first as the frail Granma Joad but later is a scary-annoying fire-and-brimstone thrower. (I think that character’s name is Mrs. Wainwright.)  Scot Greenwell is the sensitive, easily overlooked Noah Joad at first but later he plays a still vulnerable man named Floyd who is gaining strength and courage from his convictions about how migrant workers should be treated.  And still later in the play, Scot Greenwell plays an anonymous man so near death that his weakened body is like skin-covered jelly with just a bone or two inside.  Doug Johnson plays several characters well, but he gave me chills during his monologue as the Man Going Back, telling the Joads about what had happened to him in California.

More than one character gets involved in a fight.  I assume that Adam Noble’s involvement as the fight choreographer/movement coach is what makes the fighting so upsetting.

All of these pieces – the designs, the acting, the script, and the direction – come together in a “wow” way.

Appeal and Audience Factors

This show provides a triple return on the investment of an Indy resident’s time and money into a road trip to Bloomington:  1) a deeply engaging yet highly accessible experience of a classic piece of American literature, whether you have already experienced other versions of this classic story or not, 2) a carefully evoked experience of American history, and 3) a richly satisfying experience of professional performance art.  I think this show would satisfy even the pickiest of literature, history, and theatre lovers.

There were three or four children in the audience when I was there and they didn’t get the least bit squirmy that I noticed, even though each of the two acts was a little longer than an hour.  However, I think this show would be best appreciated by adults and teens.

Box Office

“The Grapes of Wrath” runs only through Sunday, September 12, 2010 but there are two performances each on Saturday and Sunday as well as a performance tonight (Thursday) and Friday night.  Buy your tickets online at www.cardinalstage.org or call the Box Office at 812-323-3020.

The location is the Waldron Auditorium in Bloomington, Indiana.  The Waldron Arts Center is on the corner of 4th and Walnut, just south of the courthouse square.  There is a little parking garage across the street that is very affordable if there are any open spots in it.  There is also a metered parking lot a little farther east on 4th, I think, (behind the Trojan Horse restaurant and the Uptown Cafe) plus other metered parking on the streets.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and www.twitter.com/indytheatre

(Photo above is of Jeffrey Parker (L) and Gary Buse (R) in top row and Diane Kondrat (L) and Gerard Pauwels (R) in bottom row.  Photo taken by Melinda Seader.)

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