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Rogue Theatre's 'Grapes of Wrath' an ensemble epic

Big themes, large cast in Tucson production of play based on Steinbeck

The Rogue is the only theatre company in Tucson — and, I would guess, one of the few in the country — with the aesthetic sensibility, technical proficiency, resident ensemble and dramatic chops to undertake an earnest production of the stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath."

Frank Galati's work (for Steppenwolf, 1988; Best Play Tony, 1990 Broadway production) is, like the book (1939), a sprawling, ensemble epic depicting the desperate 1930s Dustbowl migration to California amid the momentous changes occurring in Depression-era social, economic, and political life.

Relentlessly faithful

Rogue's talented, energetic, and well-rehearsed company takes almost three hours (including intermission) to enact this remarkable journey — the time required, as Joseph McGrath's director's notes would have it, to "give us . . . not only [an] indictment of a marketplace that views people as commodities to be used and discarded" but also an exploration of "the range of our humanity — its flaws and brutalities as well as its capability to be transcendent and compassionate."

Unlike John Ford's much-loved and awarded film (1940), which changes, elides, and obscures many of the book's incidents, interests and intentions, Galati's script is relentlessly, if (by necessity) selectively, faithful to the novel — from Tom's recalling (casually, near the beginning, to explain why a gate is open) the time when the Joads' pig ate the neighbor's baby to the closing tableau of Rose of Sharon's nursing a starving (adult male) stranger in a barn.

Expressing whole-earth oneness

That barn is delineated on the Rogue's virtually bare stage by members of the ensemble, their backs to the audience, their arms outstretched and holding hands — one of the many clever and effective ways in which McGrath deploys his huge (20-person) cast and the enormous amount of stage traffic he asks them to create.

Most of the ensemble play multiple roles: the actors put up and break down the sets; they are observers, square-dancers, and passers-by; they sell cars, dig graves, foment riots, prepare meals, build dikes; they narrate, comment, mourn, and celebrate; they even become, as with the barn at the end and the Joads' abandoned house at the start, part of the set, the very walls of the ancestral homes and outbuildings from which these one-time farm owners and now migrant part-time workers are in a kind of Biblical exile.

Thus the actors in the ensemble, like the characters they are portraying, their homes, and their (40-acre tenant) farms, merge into a shared environment — a proleptic expression of whole-earth oneness that, as the ecological movement (Steinbeck was one of its early influential proponents) would come to claim, was being destroyed by the emergent agribusiness conglomerates which were foreclosing and tractoring farmers off the land, and which Steinbeck's novel, this play, and even Ford's film depict, quite explicitly, as the villains of the piece.

The actors also propel the turntable which is built into a portion of the stage and on which their overloaded truck-caravan, skillfully constructed here out of tables, benches, and chairs that the travelers tear down and rebuild at every stop, "rides" from Oklahoma through the Southwest to the Promised Land of California in search of work picking fruit — a resourceful and economical way of conveying movement and enacting bricolage (making use of what's at hand, at which the Rogue companies, like the Okies, have always been very proficient).

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Extra-literary design

The design elements, as in all Rogue productions, are handled professionally and thoughtfully.

As Jake Sorgen observes in his music director's notes, "the novel is forever attached to . . . 'extra-literary' elements," like Dorothea Lange's photography and Woody Guthrie's music, which, along with other folk and popular artists, have clearly influenced Sorgen's eclectically original score, performed by Sorgen (on various string instruments) and violinist Vicki Brown, who remain on stage, accompanying the action, virtually throughout.

Cynthia Meier's costume design is clearly modeled after Lange's iconic images of migrant workers, collected in Steinbeck's earlier "The Harvest Gypsies" (1936), as well as Walker Evans' equally resonant photographs for James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" (1941).

Working from a color palette dominated by grays, blues, and browns, Meier and the other members of her costume-construction crew, Nanalee Raphael and Barb Tanzillo, have done a wonderful job pulling together the sheer volume of clothing items — the work shirts, the worn-down overcoats and suit coats, the jeans and overalls, the hats (fedoras, trilbys, stetsons, et al.), the hand-me-down print dresses, the uniforms, the tattered shoes and boots — worn by all those distinct (I count at least 44) characters.

Given the functional spareness of McGrath's scenic design, Don Fox's lighting design is asked to make a significant contribution to mood, which it often does, especially when isolating small intimate moments somewhere on the large nearly empty stage or when projected against the upstage cyclorama, where more panoramic scenes are tinted mostly in blues and reds, the whole scheme framed by orangey dust-bowl moons at the top of Act I and the close of the play.

I'm not sure who was responsible for the ambient/acoustic (as is always the case at the Rogue) sound design of the thunder storm near the end, but it was spectacular, particularly in its inexorable raindroppy build-up and its dam-bursting climax, augmented and animated by the ensemble's frenetic digging.

Acting choices

The acting, as always with Rogue, is consistently solid: virtually everyone is well-cast and they throw themselves into their parts skillfully and fearlessly.

Tom (Matt Bowdren) and Ma (Cynthia Meier) are the affective centers of the play, but, as in the novel (but not the film, where Henry Fonda, who was nominated for, and Jane Darwell, who won, an Academy Award, melodramatically if effectively dominate screen-time), they depend on and are immersed in the ensemble, portraying, as are their fellow actors, different aspects of familial, generational, and gender roles within a clannish group of resolutely, almost militantly, ordinary people.

Bowdren and Meier, very accomplished professionals, managed this delicate balancing act(ing) competently and effectively, but for me the most convincingly memorable performance among the core family members was David Greenwood's, whose intensely understated Method acting, not always to everyone's taste, really pays off here — his portrayal of Pa's struggle for articulation, understanding, and freedom, constantly thwarted by the massive, unrelenting facts of this hard-scrabble life he must nevertheless find his way through, is almost, in its unlikely way, a précis of Stanislavski's system.

I also found Bryn Booth's Rose of Sharon compellingly frightened and mystified, and was drawn to the nicely crafted, well-pitched ensemble roles of Steve McKee, whose firmly etched performances with various local companies I have long admired.

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I could mention many other actors and roles, but it's a huge cast full of accomplished actors and I really shouldn't go on and on, so I'll just mention one more performance, the only acting choice I found unconvincing, albeit provocatively so.

This would be James Henrikson's portrayal of Casy, the self-abnegating, self-sacrificing ex-preacher, whom Henrikson plays in a kind of ironically detached, Martin-Mull, postmodern register, which suits perhaps the cultural moment of Galati's late-80s Steppenwolf adaptation, but is, it seems to me, inappropriate for conveying the earnest sincerity of Steinbeck's (earlier 20th-century) mystical blend of ecological socialism.

Thus, I felt, Henrikson's performance proved to be an inadequate vehicle for conveying Casy's "philosophy," which is demoticly and non-ironically rearticulated in Tom's famous (especially in Ford/Fonda's rendering) "I'll be there" farewell soliloquy, but which, to me at least in performance last Saturday night, lacked the full conviction of Casy's vision supporting it.

Demurral and (dis)closure

I performed in two Rogue productions, in both of which I was directed by McGrath, and have acted with Meier, Greenwood, and McKee.

Penultimately, a small demurral. I found the pacing a bit slow. Perhaps it was the sheer length of the thing. Perhaps it was the score, which was, for the most part, rather somberly spare. Perhaps it was because I reread the novel and rescreened the film just before I saw the show and was too familiar with the action. Perhaps it was because McGrath is being characteristically generous (to the play and the actors), giving each of the many scenes (little and big) a chance to fully realize itself.

In any event and in closing, this production of "The Grapes of Wrath" is a fine example of one of the things that the Rogue does well: an intelligently conceived and skillfully realized adaptation of a literary classic. This company is the jewel in Tucson's theatrical crown: it deserves your enthusiastic support.

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Click image to enlarge

Cole Potwardowski as Al, Matt Bowdren as Tom, David Greenwood as Pa and Aaron Shand as Noah

What, where & when

  • John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," adapted by Frank Galati, directed by Joseph McGrath
  • The Rogue Theatre at The Historic Y,
  • 300 E. University Blvd.
  • January 18-28
  • Thursday–Saturday 7:30 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.
  • plus 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays, January 20 & 27