Relentless. Ponderous. Joyless.
The Rogue Theatre has mounted Frank Galati's Tony-award-winning adaptation of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath. It's the story of the share-farming class left landless in the Dust Bowl, which had followed on the heels of the Great Depression. Representing that class are the Joads, uneducated, unsophisticated, but the embodiment of American pluck and dreams, determination and hard labor. The story is an epic tale of mythic proportions, and thanks to Twentieth Century Fox and Henry Fonda, its cinematic life allowed moviegoers the chance to get a glimpse of the perversion of the American dream by money and heartless cheats. And because the truth is often hard to take, especially when it makes the rich and powerful look bad, it made a lot of people angry.
I wish I could say that Rogue's production brings this story to theatrical life with the vigor and imagination we see on their stage so often.
But I can't. Instead, the embodiment feels relentless, ponderous and joyless.
Certainly it is a harsh and heartbreaking story. But it doesn't have to be—simply must not be—a story that grinds us and pounds us and so rarely allows us a genuine connection with the story's characters.
The story of the Joad family's courage is a wrenching one, to be sure.
Tom Joad (Matt Bowdren), returning home after spending four years in prison for killing a man, finds neither his home nor his family. They have been wiped out in the swirling plague of the Dust Bowl. He does finally learn of their whereabouts, but a happy homecoming is impossible because of their plight. But there is news of a welcoming place in the West, and they are determined to find it.
Loading up their old beater of a truck with all the worldly belongings—and family members— that they could, Ma (Cynthia Meier) and Pa Joad (David Greenwood) strike out to a place known only by the reports of others: California, the land of milk and honey and oranges and grapes. Over hundreds of miles and thousands of back-breaking bumps in the road, the group meets challenge after challenge. They must be accountable to a sometimes cruel natural world. They lose family members and encounter groups of folks like them, pursuing a better life—or any life at all, since there was no way they could conjure any subsistence from the bare land of their former homes. They encounter the bad guys too, those who try to squeeze them for an extra two bits to camp and those who intentionally misrepresent work opportunities and pay. And they reckon with those who want to form unions for protection from the unscrupulous.
There is a ton of talent on stage, and there is attention to detail in the design elements. Bowdren as Tom, James Henriksen as Casy the ex-preacher who tags along with the family, Ryan Parker Knox in many roles are more than capable actors, as are most other members of a large cast.
But within the sensibility of director Joseph McGrath, the tale feels impersonal. We are sympathetic—up to a point—but we reach a moment in which the receptive attitude we have brought as an audience is taxed beyond what we have agreed to in sharing in this experience.
Why? What happens?
We willingly go along with the groundwork laid in the first act. We buy into the style of the tale and the ways it is presented. There are narrators and musicians (Jake Sorgen and Vicki Brown) on stage. There are property pieces that can be configured in different ways. There is a lot of pantomime that can sometimes be distracting as we try to figure what's being shown us. We meet a sizable number of characters, some only briefly involved and played by the same actors. There's an awful lot of first act, but, although the pace is ponderous, we still are willing to lend ourselves to the next part of the Joad's journey.
But as the moments mount in the second act, relentless, ponderous and joyless, we let go. The pact that we have made with the storytellers is violated. We cease to care except in a distant manner, because that is the manner in which the action is presented, although unintentionally, of course.
Life is hard. It's quite easy to feel hopeless. There's no magic in that, although that's what seems to be the point here.
It is certainly a harsh story, but Steinbeck's story is not a hopeless one. That's the great tragedy of this production. There is little feeling for the sense of the Joad's honorable outlasting of the battles they confront. When their destination proves unwelcoming, they move north. They endure. What greater victory is there? Certainly in our world of existential absurdities, not much.
However, the lens through which we see their story here reveals only hardship; there is no room for hope or passion or connection. Chiefly, that's because we come to see these characters not as real human beings engaged in the hard work of living. We see figures moving through a world where, although they are implied, there are no credible feelings of love for each other that we can connect with. We don't feel a real sense of courage, which is there in the story. There is a film through which we see these folks, because these folks, even created by fine actors, live their lives in what seems here a filmy haze that robs them of real skin and bones and white knuckles and heart.
We have to lay this failing at director McGrath's feet. Judged as a whole, these are not people; they're characters in a play. There is a gulf between us and them. I think that's why the final image is disturbing, almost grotesque, instead of affirming. It is the most intensely personal and genuinely intimate moment of the show, and it reminds us that we should have been engaged with such moments throughout the evening.
We have the utmost respect for the Rogue in its intentions and what we have experienced in so many of its productions. Putting Steinbeck's story on stage is a monumental effort, and we praise their willingness to undertake the task. But in the end, what we get is long-winded, ham-fisted social commentary in a tale that should land in our hearts. And that's a shame.