`Grapes of Wrath' at Ford's yields many challenges

TheaterReview

October 17, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The visual imagery created on the turntable in designer David Swayze's set is one of the best things about the production of The Grapes of Wrath at Ford's Theatre in Washington.

Several pivotal stage pictures spin into focus on this turntable - the Joad family piled, with all their earthly belongings, in their rattletrap truck; a stillborn baby drifting away in a box that serves as its coffin; and the family struggling to reach higher ground against raging floodwaters.

But striking as these images may be, they cannot compensate for a production in which large chunks of dialogue are rendered unintelligible and the lighting is frequently too murky to decipher the action.

Nor are these the only problems with director David Cromer's production. The pace is so sluggish, it mutes the simple majesty of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a family of dispossessed Oklahoma tenant farmers on the road to what they hope will be a better life in California in the late 1930s.

The production's shortcomings are all the more disappointing considering that Cromer is using Frank Galati's 1990 Tony Award-winning adaptation, a script so adroitly constructed that it more than stood the test of community theater staging when it was produced by the gutsy Spotlighters Theatre here in 1991.

But not being able to make out the action or the words (including some of the lyrics in the live incidental music) would hobble any play. And, with the exception of a few standout performances - fortunately in lead roles - a great deal of this Grapes of Wrath gets lost in the translation.

The standouts are Craig Walker as the Joads' ex-convict son, Tom, and Jeffrey Hutchinson as Jim Casy, the ex-preacher who has lost faith in God, but not in his fellow man. These two characters, who have a number of scenes together, are a strong pair, and Walker and Hutchinson ably convey their equal-but-opposite approaches to life. Walker's Tom reacts to fate's blows viscerally, and with his fists; Hutchinson's Casy reacts intellectually. Near the end, when they literally change places, it's clear that each has gained from the other's example.

The most unequivocally admirable character in Grapes of Wrath is Ma, "a woman so great with love she scares me," as Casy puts it. If anything, Ma's refusal to be beaten down by tragic circumstances - the spiraling dissolution of the family during the journey, not to mention the deaths of both Granma and Granpa Joad - makes her a bit too saintly to be believed.

With her bare feet reflecting her poverty and her prim hat reflecting her dignity, Annabel Armour looks the part and appears to be making an effort to humanize this too-good-to-be-true matriarch. But speaking in an excessively twangy accent, Armour is also one of the actors most guilty of mumbling her lines. It wasn't until almost the end of the evening that I was able to fully understand her, perhaps because it took that long to become attuned to her thick patois.

On the subject of 11th-hour speeches, Walker deserves particular commendation for doing a convincing, low-key job with Tom's potentially sanctimonious spiel: "I'll be ever'where - wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there ... "

Tom's belief in the necessity of helping his fellow man is one of Steinbeck's key points in Grapes of Wrath. Indeed, the novel and play are brimming with worthy themes - the goodness of the common man, the sanctity of the family, the value of labor, etc.

These also make excellent lessons for students, and Ford's does bring in young audiences. But instead of being inspirational, much of this garbled production is apt to leave to them baffled, if not bored.

The Grapes of Wrath

Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 Tenth St., N.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 1 p.m. Thursdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Nov. 15

Tickets: $29-$45

Call: 202-347-4833

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