‘The Grapes of Wrath’ has present-day resonance at Rockville Little Theatre

The stage adaptation of Steinbeck's classic 1929 novel is a passionate experience of empathy for human suffering.

Perhaps the most telling feature of the Rockville Little Theatre (RLT) production of The Grapes of Wrath was a series of slides shown during intermission depicting present-day refugees and migrants. As directors John Bartkowiak and Pauline Griller-Mitchell note in the program, the play — Frank Galati’s Tony Award–winning 1988 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel — has all too much resonance with the 21st-century world of climate disaster, inequality, exploitation of workers, and hostility toward poor and displaced people.

The Grapes of Wrath views its broader concerns through the lens of one extended family, the Joads, who look in vain for a brighter future in California after being forced off their Oklahoma farm. They must contend with relentless difficulty caused by a combination of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and predatory landlords and employers. By inviting the reader or viewer to get to know the Joads on a deeply personal level, and at an unhurried pace, Steinbeck and his film and stage adapters create a passionate experience of empathy for human suffering.

Doug Richesson as Tom Joad and Karen Fleming as Ma Joad in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ Photo by Randy Barth.

Ma Joad’s steadfastness through the losses and disasters besetting the people closest to her and insistence on hope and compassion under the direst of circumstances make her the moral center of the family. Karen Fleming delivers a clear, steady performance as the woman who keeps the family going through its ongoing struggles.

Her son Tom (Doug Richesson) is not one for stoically accepting misfortune. He responds to assaults and injustice with anger and, at times, violence. Tom’s younger brother Al (Jonathan Kilgore) is mostly focused on chasing girls, and his sister Rose (Morgan Fuller), pregnant and married to the ultimately worthless Connie Rivers (Daniel Dausman), is focused on the hope that she and her baby can have a better life. Their father, Pa Joad, in an appropriately low-key performance by Pete Meyer, is quietly resigned to his and his family’s situation. Like his wife, he perseveres.

The most important character not a member of the family is Jim Casy (Brian Binney), a former preacher who, no longer shouting for Jesus at revivals, becomes, by the end of his journey, a labor organizer among migrant workers in California. Given to philosophical musings, a bit unhinged at times, but deeply compassionate and self-sacrificing, Jim is vital to the play’s spiritual and political dimensions.

The Grapes of Wrath is above all an ensemble piece, with 24 actors playing, by my count, some 46 characters, including additional members of the Joad family and a variety of people they meet, for good or ill, along their journey. Notable among them are Kat Binney as Elizabeth Sandry, a Christian woman of the bigoted and persecuting type, Bob Schwartz as a greedy camp proprietor, and Floyd Knowles, a sharp, helpful man who educates Tom on the reality of migrant labor in California.

Brian Binney as Jim Casy and Doug Richesson as Tom Joad in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ Photo by Randy Barth.

Almost another character in the production is the Joads’ truck (set design and construction credited to Steve Leshin), not only the family’s means of transportation on their way west but also the directors’ primary vehicle for designating scene changes, as actors and crew reposition it in various directions. It’s a realistic depiction of a jalopy and moves well. The settings through which the truck and actors move are largely depicted by Stephen Deming’s projections on an upstage screen.

In the story’s structure, much of what matters happens in two- or three-person conversations. In the 1940 John Ford movie and the PBS video of the 1990 Broadway production of Galati’s play (available on YouTube), the directors are able to use frequent close-ups to focus on the often quiet, laconic talks between scene partners.

That degree of intimacy is difficult to replicate on a fairly large proscenium stage. In the RLT production, the directors often bring the key actors in a scene downstage while others cluster upstage near the truck. This has the effect of separating the actors in the scene from the rest of the community in which they are embedded, as well as seemingly encouraging a broader, sometimes louder, tone in the scenes, which at times can feel more like exchanges of lines than conversations.

The costumes (Hillary Glass) are period-appropriate if a bit too clean, given the mud and dust through which the characters travel. The sound design (Sarah Katz) adequately captures ambient sounds, like the truck engine. Rather than having a live small musical ensemble like that used in many productions of Galati’s script, RLT plays George Benskin’s incidental music, composed of traditional religious tunes and guitar melodies, over the sound system, along with spoken narration detailing the Joads’ travels.

The conclusion of the play follows that of Steinbeck’s novel rather than that of the film, portraying a moment of extreme desperation and shocking tenderness in which Rose, rather than Ma or Tom, is the central figure. This does not detract from the overall political and social purpose of the story, which, in Steinbeck’s words, was “to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Depression and the plight of the workers].” RLT’s production effectively conveys the message, one that needs hearing more than ever.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

The Grapes of Wrath plays through February 4, 2024, presented by Rockville Little Theatre performing at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Dr, Rockville, MD. Friday and Saturday shows take place at 8 PM, and Sunday shows take place at 2 PM. Purchase tickets ($22; $20 for students and seniors) online.

Cast and creative credits for The Grapes of Wrath are here.

COVID Safety: Masks optional.

The Grapes of Wrath
By Frank Galati, from the novel by John Steinbeck
Directed by John Bartkowiak and Pauline Griller-Mitchell


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