By James V . Ruocco
If there is a reason why "The Grapes of Wrath" is oft-revived, look no further than Connecticut Repertory Theatre's resplendent, stellar revival of the play inspired by John Steinbeck's literary classic.
It is one of the major highlights of the new fall theatrical season, smartly directed by Gary English and backed by the first-class design team of Kristen P-E Zarabozo (scenic design), Joey Morrissette (lighting design), Darby Newsome (costume design) and Teddy Carraro (sound design).
It also reconfirms CRT's reputation as a major Equity showcase dominated by ambitious, responsible, uncluttered theatrical fare that is fresh, inventive and relevant.
So, what's not to like?
This "Grapes of Wrath" soars.
Written for the stage by Frank Galati, this thought-provoking, two-act drama recalls the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930's to tell the story of one Oklahoma farm family....the Joads....forced from their dusty homestead to travel west toward California to begin a new life with big hopes and dreams and only a pocketful of money between them.
At Connecticut Repertory Theatre, "The Grapes of Wrath" is being staged by acclaimed director Gary English whose directorial credits include "Pentecost," "Galileo," "Julius Caesar," "Olives and Blood," "The Island" and "The Miracle Worker." With this production, he brings a ferocious, impassioned urgency to John Steinbeck's forever classic story, propelled by a cinematic, fluency that is energetic, intimate and mellifluous, as required.
The smoothness of this presentation benefits from English's deft, steadied hand, his knowledge of the original source material, its irony and pathos, its translation from novel to play form and the enormous humanity of the characters, their spirit, their calamity, their exploitation and their endurance.
English also infuses his telling of "The Grapes of Wrath" with the gritty insight and harsh realities of the Depression era. It's all here: the anti-migrant prejudice, the dashed dreams and hopes of its people, the homelessness, the poverty, the corruption, man's inhumanity to man, the personal tragedies, the massive obstacles and the uncertainty of life on the open road. There's also an achingly tenderness and rawness to the piece.
Like the Steinbeck novel, this production has lots to tell as it focuses primarily on the Joad's eventual cross-country journey to the golden land of opportunity. With creative staging that is fast and fluid, English keeps the stage heavily populated, when required or decidedly intimate, depending on the storyboard dictated by the playwright. The director also surrounds himself with a cast of well-chosen actors who perform confidently and are fluent in the recitation of Steinbeck's language, as set forth by the playwright.
"The Grapes of Wrath" stars Mauricio Miranda as Tom Joad, Angela Hunt as Ma, Joe Jung as Jim Casy, Aaron Bantum as Muley Graves/Floyd Knowles, Alex Campbell as Rose of Sharon, Aidan Marchetti as Connie Rivers, Johanna Leister as Granma, Dale AJ Rose as Granpa, Ken O'Brien as Pa (Tom Joad, Sr.), Rob Barnes as Singer/Narrator, .Sebastian Nagpal as Al, Annie Rossi as Winfield and Nick Greika as Noah/Willy Freeley,/Major of Hooverville.
Everyone stands out, individually or working opposite one another in pairs, trios or one big ensemble.
Up close, "The Grapes of Wrath" is not an easy show to pull off. But luckily for us, English has assembled an intelligent, crafty lot of actors who possess the necessary drive, spirit, intuition and spark to bring this particular drama to life. Their intuitive level of trust, dedication, stamina and synchronicity is unbeatable. Their understanding and knowledge of the material is uncanny. They demand and command attention right from the start. And everyone, skillfully develops his or her character in accordance to Steinbeck's masterpiece and its tangible sense of period authenticity.
Many of the actors, particularly those in the ensemble, perform live, folksy, bluegrass music in the show. Their singing, fiddling, guitar strumming and high-spirited dancing not only brings additional color and nuance to the piece, but creates a rich, moody and smokey atmosphere that ties individual scenes together and lets other pivotal moments settle and breathe. It's a create process that is deeply relevant, nostalgic and timely.
As often is the case with various CRT productions, directors (in this case, English), utilize the talents of actors from the University of Connecticut's theater department and other arts-oriented programs (all creative levels) on campus to play a part in their productions. In "Grapes of Wrath," several of these actors play multiple roles, which require fast costume changes and very different character turns. All of them succeed swimmingly, blending seamlessly into the framework of the story alongside the more experienced adult actors. They are not only amazing actors in the making, but ones who should have no trouble finding work in professional theater after they finish their studies at the University of Connecticut.
In conclusion, "The Grapes of Wrath" is an iconic, fascinating, character driven piece of American theater that articulates beautifully. It is personal. It is heartfelt. It is absorbing. It is inspiring. And under Gary English's determined, thoughtful direction, it is completely unforgettable. And, then some.
"The Grapes of Wrath is being staged at Connecticut Repertory Theatre (Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Rd., Storrs, CT), now through October 14.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 486-2113