by Hugh Hunter
Director Josh Hitchens quotes John Steinbeck: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.” Using the adaptation of “Grapes of Wrath” by Frank Galati, the show at Allens Lane Theater does all it can to back up Steinbeck’s intention.
Steinbeck’s signature, Depression-era novel is about the decimation of the Joad family by the ruling upper class. First, they lose their Oklahoma farms to bank foreclosures. Then, they are lured by handouts to farm fruit in California, only to discover they are victims of a bait-and-switch gambit by wealthy landowners.
“Grapes of Wrath” has a big downside. The plot is rambling, there is no character development to speak of, and Steinbeck can go overboard with folksy, aphoristic speechifying. But its enduring appeal lies in its documentary integrity and an unflinching faith in the common man’s will to survive.
Hitchens is inventive in mining the script’s episodic structure for dramatic moments. He expands the stage apron to develop a theater in the round so that you feel intensely present. Costumes graphically delineate character (Kellie Cooper), and the light design of J. Kenneth Jordan heightens the poignancy of the Joads’ arduous trek down Route 66.
The main character is Tom Joad, the oldest son. Played with resolution by Marc C. Johnson, Tom is a man of action. He goes off in a new direction when he falls under the influence of an older man, Jim Casey. Sam Gugino is a commanding presence as the former preacher who now approaches labor organizing with missionary zeal. (Gugino, a Chestnut Hill resident, is a former restaurant columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and Chestnut Hill Local.)
“Grapes of Wrath” has biblical overtones. There are Christ-like nuances in both Tom Joad and Casey, and echoes of Exodus in the Joad family’s long slog from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to California, the land of milk and honey.
Hitchens makes you feel the devastation of the Joads’ harrowing odyssey. He uses no less than 13 actors, many performing multiple roles. We witness the family’s confrontation with various guards and officials, minions of a ruling class we never see. Common people are at odds with themselves, as strikers fight strikebreakers. By play’s end, the Joad family consists of survivors, battered yet determined to prevail.
Hitchens goes out of his way to cast “Grapes of Wrath” as a universal metaphor for the struggle of the average person against an uncaring class order. Race is not an issue as the actors are equally black and white. And Jordan’s sound design draws heavily on ‘60s’ protest music, especially the angry interpretations of Nina Simone.
There has been renewed interest in Depression-era playwrights in recent years such as Miller, Odets and Steinbeck. You sense modern American theater takes inspiration from their work as it gropes for ways to focus on a more expansive view of justice.
Allens Lane Theater is located at 601 W. Allens Lane. “Grapes of Wrath” will run through Oct 8. Reservations at 215-248-0546 or