Thumbs up for ‘Grapes of Wrath’ at Cabrillo

The Grapes of Wrath
Our fine theater reviewer Ann Bennett was on hand last weekend to see the opening night performance of “Grapes of Wrath” at the spanking new Crocker Theater at Cabrillo College. The play, based on John Steinbeck’s timeless novel, was directed by Sarah Albertson.

Ann said the production, while incapable of living up to the full majesty of Steinbeck’s masterpiece, still nicely captures its sense of struggle and longing, and the actors and costuming really brought Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl era to life. Her only beef was that the production felt the need to show off the capabilities of the new theater, and some of the big-picture set designs overwhelmed the drama.

Here’s Ann’s original write-up:
By ANN BENNETT
Sentinel correspondent
The Cabrillo College Theater Arts Department proudly inaugurated its stunning new Crocker Theater with an appropriately exceptional choice of material: John Steinbeck’s incomparable “The Grapes of Wrath,” adapted for the stage by Frank Galati. Steinbeck’s book is a beloved classic, a tortuous tale of the American dream turned nightmare.
The book describes the migration of an Oklahoma family, one of many tens of thousands of poverty-stricken small farmers forced from their homes by a combination of devastating factors — the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the dawn of huge farming corporations. The Joad family headed west with their few possessions, fewer dollars, and a hopeful dream — albeit one with underlying fear and trepidation — of a new life in a lush and welcoming California.
Steinbeck’s rich and compelling tale explores the immensity of the change these families endured — the sense of rootlessness and the disintegration of family interdependence, along with the demoralizing loss of pride that results from extreme poverty and often ruthless discrimination.
The epic book is about suffering and pain and social injustice and desperate hope — and the play works hard to bring these vivid images to the stage. No stage, alas, is big enough for the rich tapestry of John Steinbeck’s expansive and towering literary achievement. “The Grapes of Wrath” is a spectacular novel, but it becomes a lesser spectacle on the stage, its staggeringly beautiful and descriptive prose necessarily reduced to short and cryptic scenes.
The Cabrillo production, depending on this tableau approach to the drama, nevertheless manages to make its point. The show is both despairing and poignant, clearly depicting the Joad family’s anguished trip west and its subsequent search for promise in an inequitable new world.
Directed by Sarah Albertson, whose keen eye for visual effects is always especially satisfying, the emotional impact of the play retains that of the novel, and her characters portray the agonies endured along with the tenderness shared with fine understanding. Grief and joy are presented with clear beauty, avoiding sentimentality or condescension.
Working with an excellent and committed cast, Albertson keeps the play moving as a fluid whole, despite the disruptive structure of the script’s requirements, and for the most part she succeeds. There’s no way to avoid the slide-show effects of the short scenes, but she manages to give them as much depth as possible.
The focus of the novel and the play is Ma, the matriarch whose love and energy generate a powerful determination to keep the Joad family together.
An excellent performance by Leah Creatura in this vital role is what keeps the play together. Creatura captures Ma’s strengths and weaknesses and projects the personality of this brave and compelling woman. Without her fine interpretation, the play would likely dissolve into bathos.
Michael Gomes does a nicely nuanced job as her son, Tom, a sensitive yet mercurial ex-con whose pride is countered by frustration. Another fine performance is by Ian McRae as Casy, a former preacher turned philosopher whose thoughtful and self-deprecating manner contributes rich context to the story.
Paul Baird is delightful as the charming and irrepressible son, Al, and Robert Forrest successfully portrays the frustrated and conflicted Noah. Katia Burke offers up a slightly stilted performance as Rose of Sharon, the family’s self-centered, pregnant daughter, and Dan Kleinfelder plays her shallow husband with easy superficiality.
The rest of the huge cast comes and goes as necessary, adding depth and color to the saga.
Musical director Neal Hellman on the dulcimer, with Deby Benton Grosjean on fiddle and Jewl Sandoval on harmonica, provides a fine touch of 1930s musical nostalgia.
The set, by Skip Epperson, suffers from an enthusiastic need to show off the new facility. Much of the time the huge stage is a bare space around a small vignette, and the equally huge backdrop, while no doubt meant to suggest the vastness of the Southwest, is mostly simply overwhelming.  We were all dutifully impressed to find that the new theater can accommodate rainfall and that the stage can contain a large hole full of water meant to represent the Colorado River, but the lightning was a bit much.
Costumes by Maria Crush are Depression chic, with fine attention to the styles and accessories of the 1930s. And Ian McRae’s 1934 Ford pick-up truck is a real delight.
“The Grapes of Wrath” (the book) is a deep and sensitive social commentary; “The Grapes of Wrath” (the play) tries hard to evince the same depth of emotion.  While the play may lack the smooth cohesiveness of the novel, the compelling Cabrillo production successfully creates a vivid and haunting drama that examines human suffering and yet resonates with hope.
“The Grapes of Wrath” continues at the Cabrillo Crocker Theater, Cabrillo College, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos, through Nov. 21, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.
(Note: the closing performance on Saturday, Nov. 21, will be a 3 p.m. matinee only.) Tickets are $18 general, $15 seniors and students, and $12 with SAC card and age 10 and under. For more information or to order tickets, phone 479-6331 or go to http://www.ticketguys.com.

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