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Trinity classic ‘Grapes of Wrath’ has message for today


John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” is a classic American novel.

It has been adapted for the stage by Frank Galati, and given a classic Trinity performance under the direction of Brian McEleny.

Shades of Adrian Hall and his innovative approach to telling a story, this version of the play is set in a bar (or better, a saloon), with the actors, 17 of them, moving among the audience, in and out of the imaginative setting, and creating scenes that require the audience’s imagination.

Let’s start with the final scene of the play, which wordlessly sums up the theme of the circle of life. Poignant to the point of tears, with all the tragedy befallen on the Joad family, the lights slowly go out with hope for the future.

Back to the beginning. The Joad family wanders into Michael McGarty’s sprawling set as a six-piece band made up of Trinity conservatory students to play one of their original songs.

The band has a prominent place above the action, and band members occasionally take small roles in the story. They also set a realistic atmosphere for the hard times of the Dust Bowl era and the dream of going to California to find work and happiness.

The band also provides music as the scenes transcend. Watch and listen as the Joads pack up their truck, a combination of a table, chairs, boxes and a steering wheel.

The half-stage sits close to the audience, while behind the stage is space for tables and chairs, occupied by patrons who pay only $25 to sit there and even get a free drink from the bar for the opportunity to occasionally be joined by the actors. There are also seats behind the bar.

Audience members can purchase beverages from the working bar before the play or during intermission.

The logistics and the band enhance the story, if you are willing to use your imagination. You’ll be asked to do so more than once as the family swims in the Colorado River and later survives a raging storm.

Gramma and Grampa Joad (Janice Duclos and Stephen Berenson) are reluctant to leave their homestead after being forced out by the bank and the government. The journey takes the ultimate toll on them.

Both are most convincing in portraying old, broken people whose lives are turned upside down. Berenson returns with a brief portrayal of a completely different character.

Ma and Pa Joad (Anne Scurria and Richard Donelly) do their best to hold the family together.

Tom Joad (Stephen Thorne), paroled from prison after killing a man in a fight, is the fighter in the family, rejecting the way things are and fighting for the right to work and to keep the family together.

While there is little humor in this tragedy, you will chuckle as everyone assumes Tom broke out of jail.

Things get tougher as the family makes its way west. There’s a troubled pregnancy, Uncle John’s haunting secret, and a preacher who hitches a ride after losing his faith.

Fred Sullivan Jr. gives a heart-wrenching performance as Uncle John, and Joe Wilson Jr. plays a pivotal role in the story as the preacher. (“The spirit isn’t in me any more.”)

While the action does get a little busy at times, director McEleny has done an excellent job in keeping the story and the characters moving.

It is sad how close many of the events of the past have repeated themselves today, a fact that makes this play so relevant.

People are forced off their land. The homeless Joads are rejected and taken advantage of by those who show no empathy for their condition. Wages are not even enough to feed their family. And the Hoovervilles remind us of today’s homeless shelters.

Steinbeck leaves us with a small ray of hope. And Tom Joad gives his famous speech about a “fella not having a soul of his own, but being a part of a big one.”

John Steinbeck was no Neil Simon, and this Trinity production is no dinner theatre, but it is one powerful look at a time in our history…a time we hoped would never repeat itself.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is at Trinity Rep through Oct. 6. If you like great storytelling, great theatre and great acting, don’t miss it.

For reservations call 351-4242.


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