Timeless ‘Grapes’ shines as Trinity season opener

The cast of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath,' now playing in Trinity Rep's downstairs Dowling Theater through October 6.

The cast of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ now playing in Trinity Rep’s downstairs Dowling Theater through October 6.

    Trinity Repertory Company opened up their 50th anniversary season in a big way with a magnificent production of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” This is a perfect production for this venerable institution to embark upon their next half century of theatre; the show hearkens back to Trinity Rep’s own past with a nod to the environmental staging style of the theatre’s founder, Adrian Hall, and showcases the strengths of the current acting company and their ability to tell a great story, simply and eloquently. And this is a classic American story, very truthfully told, I defy you to see it and not feel your soul stirred.
“The Grapes of Wrath” is, perhaps, the archetypical American tale. You know the story. In the midst of the great depression the Joad family, due to severe drought and subsequent bank foreclosures on their land, are forced to migrate west and try their luck in the promised land of California.  But to understand their story and struggles is to understand the American psyche; their odyssey is an epic one through the heart and soul of this nation. Though our history is relatively short, the meaning and spirit of America is as vast as its terrain, sometimes arid, sometimes lush but always wide-open. As with any great foundation myth, to know the Joads is to understand who we are and how we got to be here.
This is why “Grapes” matters and why the staging of Brian McEleney, who seems incapable of directing a bad production, makes such great and poetic sense. Eschewing the strictures of absolute realism, Mr. McEleney has staged the show in an actual, working onstage honky-tonk bar with the audience seated around and in and always immersed in the action. It makes for great, vivid storytelling precisely because the great and terrible events of our lives, like our foundation myths, always live on in our oral history. The barroom setting creates a ‘present’ where the ‘past’ of this essential story is retold and relived; a secular meetinghouse found anywhere along the highways and byways of America where testimony is delivered and drinks are sold.
This setting also allows for the staging to be lean and muscular without losing an iota of the simple eloquence of Steinbeck’s words. Though the playing space may seem as barren as the dust bowl there is nothing nebulous about the events recreated in this setting; all is simply assembled out of thin air by using the tools right at hand. A collection of tables, chairs, barrels and blankets can become a truck for the journey, a river can be realistically recreated on the barroom floor. And the utilitarian nature of such a staging is utterly appropriate for the hardscrabble lives of folks who can do and must do anything simply to survive.
No honky-tonk saloon is quite complete without a kick-butt band and to that end we have in one corner of the stage, 3pile, a tight little bluesy country music ensemble comprised of students from the Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium. The original music and songs they have written were inspired by their reading of the story, serve as a supplemental counterpoint to the onstage action and are terrific though I thought that the first act could be trimmed by perhaps one song, too much music early on serving to bust up the rhythm of the storytelling. The band members also play a wide variety of characters in the telling of this tale adding considerably to the collaborative collective of this ensemble.
And as for the Trinity Rep acting ensemble onstage all are absolutely pitch perfect in their roles and once again the extraordinary achievement is that this versatile company of actors we have become so accustomed to play their roles as if they were born to them. This is manifested in a multitude of different ways, a good example being the wise eyes and knowing smile that lights up Anne Scurria’s face; her patient pioneer countenance wordlessly conveys volumes of exposition, mood and tone. The components of this cast complement each other so well onstage it is as if each is a part of that “the one great soul”  Jim Casy describes.
Stephen Thorne is a marvel as Tom Joad. The actor is earnest, wary and quietly impassioned in the role; there is a sense of decency and just anger in his onstage demeanor that is as clear and deep as well water. He makes the “I’ll be there” speech, one of the most moving passages in American literature, as forthright, clear and nuanced as a Shakespearean soliloquy. His is a brilliant and moving portrayal of the very best of our nature.
Just as moving is Joe Wilson Jr. as Jim Casy. There is a sort of humble hunger that marks his ends onstage and when this former preacher describes how he has lost his faith that lack of the spirit seems palpable as if what he has lost has left a gaping hole gouged out of him.
A sense of forlorn loss informs the performance of Fred Sullivan Jr. as Uncle John; a stain of deep sadness seems, subtly but indelibly, marked upon his soul.
Anne Scurria conveys all of a mother’s wisdom onstage as Ma Joad, and that wisdom is patient, long-suffering and hard won. She is well matched by Richard Donnelly as her implacable husband and here this fierce actor seems stubborn and stuck simultaneously; a strong man in a no-win situation.
Stephen Berenson is a delight as Grampa, reveling in his cantankerousness and as stubborn and justly aggrieved as a child. Janice Duclos is wholly fervent as Granma. Jessica Crandall makes for a Rose of Sharon marked by fragile desperation.
“This ain’t the law”, Tom exclaims, as the Joads are rousted from one squatters camp after another on their migration west, “They’re working on our spirit” adding that “I ain’t got it in me to stand by and do nothing.” Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic depicts the dark side of the American dream as well as the indomitable will of the American people. These are the facts of a dark time of our history but the author couches these hard truths in poetic, spiritual terms. It is no accident that, as Jim Casy, and note those initials of his, is attacked by strike-breakers he cries out: “you don’t know what you’re doing.” Steinbeck chronicles a cycle of our oft-repeated history, this is why this story matters and why it needs to be retold now. And this tale is being told superbly in Trinity Rep’s vivid and riveting production. See it now for the good of your soul.

“The Grapes of Wrath” at Trinity Repertory Company, now through October 6, see listings for details.

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