NKU‘s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ Bears Fruit
Posted On June 23, 2017
Review by Shawn Maus of Grapes of Wrath: NKU
NKU harvests a genuine tale with the production of The Grapes of Wrath.
Steinbeck’s novel, on which this play is based, centers on the Joad family, an Oklahoma farm family escaping the devastation of the Dust Bowl that plagued our country’s Great Plains for a better life in California.
The title came from the Battle Hymn of the Republic – “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”. And, as might be expected, that image served as a symbol in both the plot and the novel’s thematic concerns. But there is also a line that sums up the feelings of many during this turbulent time of migrants, immigrants and political turmoil: “and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
The NKU production is filled with heaviness. While the action has the family slowly traveling across country, it is the people they meet along the way that is the heart of the story. People, alone or with others, who have been displaced and scattered, like so much seed thrown by the wayside. The staging by director Corie Danieley moves along effortlessly as the actors trod and plod their way through the set to depict the slow, burdensome travels of the Joads.
Scenic Designer Ryan Howell’s set is just what you expect from the Dust Bowl environment – broken barn walls, weathered floor that suggests the hard scrabble, cracked earth. Seen upon entering the theatre proper, Howell has set the entire aura of the play’s emotional content. The stage area was opened deep with panels of slats for the back wall, which could represent barn, box car, camp shelter, anything. The raked set made keeping your eyes and the actors equilibrium off-balanced, as though the characters were no longer grounded to the earth.
Notably missing, but not in the least bit missed was the Joad’s truck. The actors use crates to represent the truck. The crates are packed and stacked, then the actors “ride” the crates to symbolize the truck. As the Joads travel the land the crates are carried by the actors making the trip more ponderous and heavy. Lack of excessive props allows the audience to use their imaginations. Director Danieley staged the actors to carry on business in the background during scene dialogue; moving things, coming in or going out, silently conversing or working. There was hardly a time when it was just one or two people onstage.
The stars of the show are Tom Joad (Caleb Farley) and Jim Casy (Trey Paris), the lapsed preacher who tags along with the Joads and ends up becoming directly involved in the labor struggle in California. Both actors bring a palpable complexity to the heart of the painful conversations and situations in which the characters find them. Their chemistry is effortless. Not to be missed is the nuanced performance of Ben Eglian as slow-witted Noah. Eglian ‘s subtle tics, seemingly involuntary movements and stutter offer a strong portrayal. Not that the cast isn’t strong. They just seem to be wandering, gathering.
Sound design was a bit of a strain. The music from the hobo band from backstage at times drowned out the dialog on stage. Several actors were hard to hear in general so some well-placed microphones or better projection technique from actors would have helped to reach the upper seats in the raked Corbett Theater.
The Grapes of Wrath lends a powerful message. It is a classic Homeric tale of the human spirit, of survival, and the power of family. A job well done for bringing this book to life.
The Grapes of Wrath runs September 29-October 9 at NKU Corbett Theatre. Tickets are available at https://artscience.NKU.edu/departments/theatre/season/mainstage1.html or by calling the box office 859-572-5464