John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is a grim recounting of a Depression-era family of Oklahoma sharecroppers driven from home by ecological and economic disasters. In the late 1980s theater artist Frank Galati adapted it into a powerful stage production, one you can see throughout April at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. It’s a downer of a story, but definitely worth seeing.
The Joads — a dozen characters in all — make an arduous trek to California vain hoping to find employment and a better life after their life on the Prairie is destroyed by the Dust Bowl and unfeeling banks. Sound familiar? The show is a powerful reminder that life has not improved for many Americans 80 years later.
It’s brought to life by an excellent ensemble cast of CSC regulars, stepping outside their usual Shakespearean mode to play down-and-out, thoroughly American characters who must “keep on keepin’ on” despite devastating conditions and personal tragedies. Directed by Brian Isaac Phillips, more than 20 actors bring their travails to life, each one convincing in his or her role. Justin McCombs is Tom Joad, just out of prison for murdering a man in a fight; but he’s a virtuous, high-minded guy, searching for a better life. After connecting with a loquacious former preacher, Jim Casy (CSC veteran Nick Rose, in one of his finest performances), he finds his family ready to depart for the Promised Land of California. Sherman Fracher plays the powerful matriarch Ma Joad; Drew Fracher is pragmatic Pa Joad.
CSC has recreated the Joads’ dilapidated jalopy of a truck that carries the family through the first act; the second act portrays the dismal conditions of near homelessness and abusive employment they find once they arrive. Folksy musical interludes performed live by some of the actors add texture to this powerful story of oppression and survival.
Steinbeck’s title, derived from the second line of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” suggests that deliverance is the goal, but the Joads pay a high price for their modest aspirations and the story ends with a sad, pietistic image of deliverance that’s far from an assured thing.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH, presented by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through April 29. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.