“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, adapted by Frank Galati, produced by The Rogue Theater - Review

Converting a novel into a movie or play requires radical simplification while remaining true to the plot and characters.  With a movie, you have fully fleshed film locations that speak thousands of words.  In the theater, you have several sets that must evoke location.  In the case of The Rogue, you have one set and clever wooden boxes that rearrange themselves into the truck, dining tables, stools, and stands.  Thus, 169,481 words make their way into two hours and forty-five on stage.

Part of the Joad Family:  Bryn Booth as Rose of Sharon, David Greenwood as Pa Joad, Gabriel Morales as Winfield, Cynthia Meier as Ma Joad, Florie Rush as Ruthie.  Photo AZ Daily Star.

Part of the Joad Family:  Bryn Booth as Rose of Sharon, David Greenwood as Pa Joad, Gabriel Morales as Winfield, Cynthia Meier as Ma Joad, Florie Rush as Ruthie.  Photo AZ Daily Star.

Frank Galati, a member of Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, adapted The Grapes of Wrath in ’88.  It was produced in Chicago, then traveled to Broadway where it won the Tony for Best Play in ’90.  It did not run even a year—this is not the fodder for the matinee crowd.  I was fortunate to see the Steppenwolf Chicago production.  Though memories of the production are dim, The Rogue production seemed more emotional, real, and benefitted from the small stage.  

Galati included music in his adaptation.  The Rogue’s program says, “Music Direction and Original Composition by Jake Sorgen”.  So, I’m inferring that what we heard was all original to this production, though some pieces were old folk favorites.  Here, the music and the players melded into the production, playing non-speaking parts where a “crowd” was needed.  Vicki Brown, violin, and Jake Sorgen, guitar, made wonderful music together and formed much of the frame surrounding and supporting the plot.

The Okie story is told in vignettes:  at the Oklahoma sharecrop farm, leaving the farm, on the road and camping, at the campground by the picking fields, on the road – again.  It’s the eternal story of the disenfranchised poor—contrasted with the off-stage middle class, living some form of the American dream even in the Depression.  They are the farm owner who evicts the Joads, the law enforcement men who harass and arrest migrants, the growers who pit needy against needy to keep wages low, the nascent unions that promise help, but can’t or won’t come through for the pickers.  To leave Oklahoma was to leave hell.  To make a new life in California was a living hell.  In the audience, you felt shame and pain for this black part of American history.  You also felt the love among the Joads and how they were clannishly bonded until California broke their spirits.

Cole Potwardowski, left, Matt Bowdren, David Greenwood and Aaron Shand.  Photo: AZ Daily Star.

Cole Potwardowski, left, Matt Bowdren, David Greenwood and Aaron Shand.  Photo: AZ Daily Star.

The Rogue Ensemble were excellent in their roles.  David Greenwood, as Pa Joad, at last had a leading role where his vocal “twang” authenticated the character.  His phlegmatic style befits the family leader.  Matt Bowdren, as Tom Joad, and Cynthia Meier, as Ma Joad, shared the unspoken love of mother and oldest child, no matter how unpredictable the child.  

There are 39 characters in The Grapes of Wrath—20 actors are listed in the program guide.  Director, Joe McGrath, did a masterful job of seamlessly blending the characters, choreographing the almost constant movement and delivering the meaning of the play clearly. Travel was signified by “constructing the truck”, situated on the small round circle stage right, propelled around by cast members using long sticks fitted into holes.  It all worked for the audience.  Lighting Designer, Don Fox, made effective use of back-lighting upstage to create silhouettes that added kuroko-like extra players to crowd scenes. 

The Rogue Theatre again took a difficult play, challenged by the need for a large cast, and made it look effortless.  Kudos for a great production.

"Machinal" by Sophie Treadwell, produced by Greenhouse Theater Center, directed by Jacob Harvey

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Based on the lurid story of Ruth Snyder, a New Yorker who, with her lover, murdered her husband and was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison in 1928, Machinal is an “expressionist” play.  That description was used in 1929 when Treadwell’s (an investigative reporter and feminist) play opened on Broadway.  It is characterized by extreme simplification of characters to mythic types, declamatory dialogue and heightened intensity.

Considered a hit on Broadway, Machinal (derived from the French word for mechanical) ran 91 shows.  It was the first big role for Clark Gable, who played the feckless lover.  The show has been revived many times, and is popular with colleges and universities--perhaps because starkness makes for a low-budget production. It’s hard to be involved with a stage full of performers who move woodenly, rarely smile, and, since you know the punch line, hard to become involved in plot development. The movement direction by Elizabeth Margolius was well done and added dimension to flat (purposely) production.  The evening we attended, the understudy, Abigail Schwarz, a student at North Central College, played the Ruth.  She was outstanding.  North Central College collaborated with Greenhouse on the production.

We can assume that when the play was first produced, it alluded to homosexuality in the cabaret scene.  In this production, two homosexual couples, one male, one female, sit woodenly in wooden chairs, mumbling inane lines to each other, holding hands, on the periphery of the set.  Was this added just to appeal to a “special” theater crowd?  To show modern sensibilities that were not likelycast in an early 20th century play? IMHO, the special crowd might be offended because the characters seem so clumsily grafted into the play.

Expressionist theater makes for a rigid and rather boring evening.  If you are a student of theater, see it to learn about the genre.  Otherwise, skip it.