Skimming the great in The Grapes of Wrath
by Suzi Steffen
Adapting a towering U.S. classic — a tome that could serve as a doorstop; a massive road story that serves to explain the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, government camps, the private ownership of agricultural land and the disgusting exploitation of agricultural workers — into a play that regular theater attendees will sit still for? That’s tough. Tougher still might be the job of a director of the result, a play that zips through the bullet point highlights of the sprawling tale; or the jobs of actors trying to find depth in characters who serve both as themselves and as examples of others.
|The Joad family. Photo courtesy of Cottage Theatre
So, The Grapes of Wrath at Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove serves as a kind of cautionary tale about what can happen when a long, packed book gets turned into a stage tale. Those who don’t know the book may have a hard time with the script, which skims through the Joad family’s trek from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposed paradise of California. Cops and private security in the pay of the wealthy bust heads from the first scene; the Okies, victims of a natural disaster, get treated like criminals all along the way. John Steinbeck wasn’t subtle in the book, but at least one character in both book and play becomes more than a stereotype and more than a two-dimensional character.
The star of the Cottage Grove performance, however, is the jalopy. Wheeled onto stage, packed, unpacked, repacked, kitted out with the things a huge family needs for survival on the long Route 66, its lights burning whenever the Joads must drive at night, the truck — “hand-built from recycled materials for this production,” the program says — takes over. It’s an excellent prop, but it also distracts, especially when the truck has to move. Four people popping up to move the truck every few minutes means a lot of fussy stage business that, the night I attended, caused audience laughter and commenting.
Eliza Roaring Springs plays Ma, and the part works well for her talents. At first, the script focuses on Tom Joad (Ryan Hohman) and Jim Casy (Earl Ruttencrutter). During Act II’s depressing and disaster-strewn course, Ma Joad rises to prominence as she herds what’s left of her family toward the end, a culmination of natural and human-made disaster that can’t help but remind contemporary viewers of New Orleans in 2005.
The famous final tableau, which has gotten The Grapes of Wrath banned more than any other part of the book (though one might think its hints that socialism holds promise would attract book-banners more than breast milk), retains its near-Biblical power.
Cottage Theatre knows that The Grapes of Wrath may stir its audience members to wonder what they can do for the downtrodden of their own community. So the theater’s sponsoring a food drive for FOOD for Lane County. If you forget to bring canned goods and pasta and peanut butter to the play, you might consider sending a check to FFLC, which does amazing and necessary work throughout the county.
The Grapes of Wrath takes viewers on a rather tedious journey, one in this case with pitch-perfect costumes and props and gamely energetic actors, some of whom do a fine job of showing how humans strive to live and stay together even in desperate circumstances.
The Grapes of Wrath continues through Oct. 17. Tix at cottagetheatre.org or 541-942-8001.