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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
The Grapes of Wrath

Before I knowed it, I was sayin' out loud, 'The hell with it! There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing.— Preacher Jim Casy
Grapes of Wrath
Wendy Barrie-Wilson as Ma Joad and Christian Conn as Tom Joad
(Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
John Steinbeck's celebrated novel The Grapes of Wrath, about the dispossessed Dust Bowl farmers, was effectively and powerfully dramatized by Frank Galati. There was a successful and acclaimed Broadway production under Galati's direction in 1990 that followed its premiere at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company. There have been numerous regional productions since then. In the wake of the recent recession, the loss of jobs and the many displaced families, there could not be a better time for The Shakespeare Theatre Company to stage this all too painfully topical and timely play. I will wager that this production, under the sterling direction of Joe Discher, will stay in your mind long after the physical production is gone.

And what a physical production it is: A downpour that floods the front of the stage, a river bank on the edge of the stage deep enough for the Joad family to bathe in. But most memorable is the play's stunning visual centerpiece — the Joad family's makeshift truck as it sputters forth from their desolate and repossessed farm in Oklahoma piled high with all their worldly belongings.

Even for those who cherish the classic 1940 film version starring Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, this is as faithful and sweeping a distillation of the novel's major characters and their westward migration as we are likely to get. The episodic depiction of humanity in peril during the Great Depression is driven by a surging epic propulsion that director Discher and his fine cast don't let get away from them. There is a painstaking invocation of the novel's primary characters, all of whom are individualized without recourse to expositional or ideological digressions.

As the painfully embittered Okie who tries in vain to find security for his family in California, Christian Conn is a splendid and real Tom Joad, the out-on-parole son who un-heroically dissolves from being a man filled with gentle optimism to one who is mortally wounded by the cruelties of life. Wendy Barrie-Wilson's Ma Joad is piercingly earthy and unsentimental to a fault; the result is, nevertheless, quite moving. Pearce Bunting's persuasive performance as the abdicated, but profoundly spiritual preacher adds even more punch. His piercing eyes a constant reflector of the pain and desperation he sees around him.

There are many formidable performances from a cast of 24, many playing multiple roles. Whether huddled around campfires beneath starry skies or weathering storms and a flood, Steinbeck's voices — the voices of Americans crying out for a fair deal — resonate with the same truths on stage today as they did on the written page 70 years ago.

Original music and traditional folk songs have been integrated impressively into the play serving as symbolic bookends to the many scenes. These are splendidly performed on the guitar, banjo, harmonica, fiddle, and Jaw Harp by Nick Plakias, Jay Leibowitz and Connor Dugan Leszcuk, who also comprise the trio who supply the music for a rousing reel dance at a farm camp. This is a major theatrical endeavor for STNJ and it is a triumph.

The Grapes of Wrath
By Frank Galati (from the novel by John Steinbeck)
  Directed by Joe Discher
Cast: Pearce Bunting (Jim Casy), Christian Conn (Tom Joad), James Michael Reilly (Muley Graves), Michael Daly (Willy, Car Salesman,Camp Proprietor, Agricultural Officer, Deputy Sheriff, Narrator), Jay Leibowitz (Car Salesman, Gas Station Owner, Contractor,Weedpatch Camp Director, Narrator), NickPlakias (Car Salesman, Man Going Back, Mayor of Hooveiville, Mr.Wainright), John Little (Pa Joad), Wendy Barrie-Wilson (Ma Joad), Jim Mohr (Grampa, Hooper Ranch Bookkeeper), Bette Moore (Granma),Jake Berger (Noah), James Patrick Barley (Uncle John), Jesse Easterling (Winfield), Olivia Haleblian (Ruthie),Susan Maris (Rose of Sharon),Tim Nicolai (Connie Rivers),Jack Moran (Al), Connor Dugan Leszczuk (Young Man),Philip Guerctte (Gas Station Attendant), James Michael Reilly (Camp Proprietor, Floyd Knowles, The Man in the Barn), Stejanic Resnick (Floyd's Wife), Rebecca Davis (Floyd's Wife, Camp Nurse), Elizabeth Hess (Elizabeth Sandry, Mrs. Wainripht, Narrator), Katelvins (Al'sGirl, Auric Wainright, Narrator),Noah Verzani (son of Man in Barn).
Musicians: NickPlakias (Guitar, Banjo, Harmonica), Jay Leibowitz (Guitar and Jaw Harp), Connor Dugan Leszczuk (Fiddle)

Set Designer: Marion Williams
  Costume Designer: Maggie Dick
  Lighting Designer: Matthew E. Adelson
  Sound Designer: Steven L. Beckel
  Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
  Original music by Nick Plakias
  Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including one intermission
  The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, N.J.
  (973) 408 - 5600
  Tickets ($30 - $54) Performances: Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday evenings at 7:30 PM; Thursday, Friday evenings at 8 PM; Saturday, Sunday matinees at 2 PM; Saturday evening at 8 PM.
  Opened: 10/24/09
  Ends: 11/15/09
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 10/25/09
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