Spotlighters Theatre presents a gripping 'Grapes of Wrath'

THEATER

November 07, 1991|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

A powerful and poignant production of John Steinbeck's literary masterpiece "The Grapes of Wrath" is being presented by the Spotlighters Theatre group through Dec. 1.

The book was adapted for the stage by playwright Frank Galati for the Steppenwolf Theater Company of Chicago. The stirring drama received plaudits from New York audiences last year, garnering the 1990 Tony and Outer Critics Circle awards.

In 1940, Steinbeck's major novel (directed by John Ford) became an unforgettable, award-winning motion picture starring Henry Fonda, John Carradine and Jane Darwell.

Known for his proletarian sympathies, "The Grapes of Wrath" realistically and poetically expresses the author's esoteric conviction that all life is sacred.

Galati's adaptation stays true to Steinbeck's classic in all its timeless, devastating rusticity. The final scene (not in the movie) packs a mighty wallop and is a tribute to the courage and hope of the invincible human spirit.

The story chronicles the struggles of the proud Joad family during the Great Depression. Reduced to poverty after the loss of their farm, the members of the Joad clan flee the Oklahoma dust bowl and set their sites on California. Granma and Granpa, Uncle John, Ma and Pa and their five offspring and one son-in-law travel in a jalopy across the desert -- the dream of a decent life holding them together.

But reality in the forms of hunger, death, cruel intolerance and blatant exploitation by those hiring the thousands of poor laborers flooding the California farms, turns the dream to ashes.

Ma is the driving force in the family -- a loving but tough-minded Okie determined to keep her brood together despite the deprivation and adversity.

Son Tom has returned home after spending four years in jail for killing a man in self-defense. Quiet and sweet-natured until unreasonably provoked, Tom represents the first rumbles of unionizing in this country. His conscience ultimately forces him to passionately take on the cause of workers' rights.

Barry Feinstein has directed the Maryland premiere with a keen, sensitive hand. He has cast his production carefully with mostly experienced actors and, considering the large cast (30) crossing the limited space, each scene (except Granpa's burial sequence) flows with swift fluidity into the next.

After Granpa has apparently died on the road, Feinstein has actor John Howell (who does a nice, feisty job) run on stage and stand soulfully in a corner while Uncle John and Pa bury his body. Howell should be on stage at the beginning of this scene for proper surrealistic effect.

Mounted simply on the small arena stage, the production also neatly utilizes three corners of the theater. The main focus is on the upper level where the Joad family takes to the open road in a simulated run-down truck (complete with bright headlights).

There is square dancing and stirring live music of the '30s. Harmonica and guitar back up soloists singing an excellent original piece, "Song for Christian (All Part of Being Alive)" by musical director John Seay, and Seay's adaptation of Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty."

Audrey Herman, president and artistic director of the Spotlighters, gives an excellent performance as Ma Joad. Touching and inspiring in the role, Herman effectively gets to the vulnerable core of her character -- offering a radiant inner aura that promises a brighter future for all.

Actor William Runnebaum shows his versatility as an actor in the role of Tom. Ingenuous, engaging, bold, purposeful and fiercely honest, Runnebaum gives a strong performance.

Joseph Moore turns in a very credible, in-depth performance as a disillusioned, sinning preacher down on his luck and dreams. Bill Grauer is fine as the stalwart Pa who heeds his wife's earthy wisdom.

Justine Williams gives a lovely, delicate performance as Tom's pregnant sister whose husband has deserted her.

There are some uneven performances but, overall, the entire ensemble does well. Outstanding dramatic moments are provided by: Robert Bayer, Leo Knight, Doug Kaufman and Dorianne Weaver.

The talented group of musicians and soloists include: Laura Cosner, Anthony Hayes, Nick Raye, Lisa Salkov, Justine Williams, Michael O'Connell, Bruce Ruth.

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