TO VIEW & REVIEW: Last night’s performance of “Grapes of Wrath”

Posted on April 10, 2009 by Sara Hickman. | Comments Off on TO VIEW & REVIEW: Last night’s performance of “Grapes of Wrath”

The air is thick, here. As we take our seats in the intimacy of the Zach Scott’s
side theatre, a smoke machine, nicely hidden behind stage right and tumbleweeds,
occassionally lazily spews what looks like a hot, dusty wind…
The lighting is mandarin orange, the stage floor strewn with sand.

A lone character, dressed in 30’s depression era pants and shirt, hat slung low
over his eyes, comes and sits upon a single wooden crate, saw and bow in hand.
He begins to bend the saw, the bow gliding over the edge, and the haunting
keening begins. An astute way to take us back in time…to the longing, the
depression, the dustbowl of Oklahoma.

The ex-minister, Jim Casy (the fabulous Marc Pouhe), sitting in the dirt
and singing to Jesus was captivating. His voice was pure without being
broken or over affected. I felt he kept his character a little close to the chest,
and really broke out whenever he was in conversatioin with young Tom Joad,
or in the scene with the strikers: his passion really comes to a head here,
and I felt it was the pivotal scene for him, and not just because he is
murdered, but because he is straining to get Tom to understand the bigger
picture. (I think Mr. Pouhe was shining throughout, and I can imagine he
is quite terrific in any meatier role and/or Shakespearean performance.)

The Young Tom Noad striding in, returning after 4 years in prison,
had me hooked. The angular, physical movements
and intensity of young Tom (David Christopher) were perfect.
He’s a man who’s found he likes himself while he’s been locked up,
but he’s just twitchy enough to make you wonder what’s around the bend.
He’s enthusiastic, with a quiet sense of humor/curiousity that makes him very likeable.
The interplay between himself and Jim Casy, and towards the end, with his mother,
were really fantastic.

As the play progressed, the interplay of the characters had me believing this was a
true family.

Jarret Mallon, who portrays Noah Joad, the “slow” son who ends up wandering
down stream, is astounding. He plays two other characters, as well, different
as night and day. I think he was my favorite performer, and I look forward
to seeing him in future presentations.

Dirk Van Allen, who is Granpa Joad and FIVE other characters!, has the capacity
to slip into characters so easily…it is testimony to his love of craft and passion
for capturing the heart of who he is portraying. One minute he is upset about
having to zip up his pants, as a Granpa full of spit and vinegar, bringing laughter
quickly to the audience, and next he’s in a scene where he is angry, confused and
heartbroken: he doesn’t want to leave the land he loves.

Ma Joad (Janelle Buchanan) had the role of keeping the family’s spirits intact, even
as they are falling apart. She’s a talented actress, and I enjoyed her rendition of ma,
but I couldn’t ever really take her in. I felt like she needed to have a deeper sense
of urgency and heartache. She came across a tad flat, in particular in scenes that
were begging to go over the edge with emotion: her interactions with young Tom, especially
when laying her hand on his chest in desperation—I needed to sense more of
her fear/worry/love. She came across a little too sophisticated for me, and although
I think Ma’s personality is wise, I think she was missing a bit of the country
wisdom that would have made her even more of a mother hen worried about her brood.
This is just my humble opinion, mind you.

John Pointer was the perfect choice for bringing the music to set the tone of the scenes:
playing a beat up old acoustic with slide or finger picking, his voice sharing the thoughts
through song. His harmonies were nice, and in particular, the use of the guitar as
the backing sounds for starting up the jalopy were clever. He was seamless and never
distracting. Lovely.

Sarah Gay (narrator and a variety of characters throughout) had a winsome voice that really
brought the heart of the times to a complete quiet…Her interpretations of the songs
were lush and throaty and masterful. I didn’t really like her chirpiness as a narrator, though;
it was rather disruptive to the mood. But, as a singer and character actor, she brought
her all and was stellar.

Rich Upton (Muley, Starving Man, Singer/Musician) had a moment in the spotlight, literally,
with guitar and voice. His dusty tenor was riveting and quiet, and pulled me in, as if I
was standing there with him, looking out at the ruins of the farms and family dreams.
His dying man didn’t have much to say, but the use of his body to frame the context
of the end of an era and the hopes of a new dawn said volumes.

Rose of Sharon (Xochitl Romero) grew on me. At first, she didn’t have much to really work with,
but bent her body with the burgeoning burden of a woman with child, and that said more
than the words she had to work with. Just like the child inside, her character grew and
she was one of the few, if only, who really found her own depression era voice, and I really
liked how she shared her heartache over the loss of her husband, whining and scratching
towards nothing, and how her face shined with acceptance in the closing scene, her breast
given proudly and without fault to the dying man.

My biggest dislike, however, was the modern feel of the language—
I missed the use of the Okie accents/dialect in the book, and the way Steinbeck had utilized
the language of the depression era–including
“fambly” for “family”. The set, the costuming, the lighting and the creative
use of a symbolic wooden “wagon” for the beat up jalopy, obviously, had
a lot of thought behind their creation. So, the fact that the language
didn’t jibe in sync was an odd decision, I thought.

The use of the hidden “river”, with real water under the stage, was incredibly
useful. The most haunting moment is when the entire family is standing in the
“rain”, which is pouring down from overhead, lights shining from behind,
soaking everyone as they leave the caboose and head for a barn.

I’m not going to be able to write about every actor/character, however, I would like
to say I wish there had been more of the bickering between the siblings,
as in the book. The children didn’t have much to say throughout, a line
each towards the end, and so we didn’t get to know much about
who these children were…

Overall, I give this performace a B+, although I did stand first at the end…
wanting to love everyone on stage, the people, for their performances
… I recognize how much hard work this production took.

I sincerely hope that you will go and see this performance yourself, however.
It is not a performance to be missed, but savored and shared with a friend.
There will be much to talk about afterwards, as you can see from
my feedback. And for the price of the ticket, you are getting something
incredibly uniquely Austin that will stay with you long after the curtain


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