The Grapes of Wrath is one of those timeless stories that echoes long after the curtain falls. The stage adaptation is based on John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about an Oklahoma family searching for a better life during the Dust Bowl era of the early 1930s. It is required reading for most young Americans, and many of its themes, such as poverty, intolerance and oppression, are sad realities even today.
John Ford won a directing Oscar for the unforgettable film version of the novel in 1940, and the daunting task of bringing The Grapes of Wrath to the Boise stage has fallen to BLT director David Priest, who just last year staged another Steinbeck classic, Of Mice and Men. Priest admitted to possibly needing a long directing respite following Grapes, which boasts a cast of some 40 actors and musicians and nearly 30 set changes.
Fortunately, Priest has much to be proud of with this production, earning himself a sizeable break. The show clocks in at an impressively well-paced two and a half hours with intermission. Those seemingly insurmountable set changes are practically flawless, and his cast is more than up to the challenge of bringing this epic to life.
Grapes follows the story of the Joad family, Oklahoma farmers who pack up their belongings in a single rickety truck and set off in hope of prosperity in California, fueled by a widely circulated flyer advertising the need for hundreds of orchard workers.
The central character of the Joad clan is Tom (Scott Beets), recently released from state prison after serving four years for a manslaughter conviction. Tom has a hot temper, which proves detrimental to the family as the story progresses. Beets adeptly shows us Tom's contemplative side as he matures into a man along the long, hard journey, but he could use a little more fire in those moments when his angry passion ignites.
Jerry Snodgrass fits the bill nicely as Jim Casey, a former preacher who joins the Joads on their trek. Snodgrass paints Casey as something of a wizened court jester--someone everyone else can draw strength, inspiration and much-needed laughter from all at once.
Janelle K. Walters has perhaps the biggest shoes to fill as Ma Joad, the driving force of the family played to Oscar-winning perfection by Jane Darwell in the movie version. Walters captures the determination and desperation of the role, unintentionally stealing scenes from some of her fellow actors, including Beets and Larry Chase as Ma's overly optimistic husband Pa Joad.
Matt Laine and David Baker make believable Joad brothers, Travis Shane Brandon effectively brings grief and humor to the role of Uncle John, and Nova Perry draws much sympathy as the pregnant and eventually abandoned daughter Rose of Sharon. Ken Boyd delivers a poignant and moving monologue as a man who's lost his family and all hope.
Boise-area bluegrass/folk string band the Victuals add welcome mood music to the play, despite drowning out the actors at times--particularly Snodgrass. The musicians provide an appreciated distraction during scene changes and often accompany a handful of plot-appropriate songs performed by Boyd, Brook Stallings, Ken Wood and Veronica Wyatt.
The wonderful technical elements of this show cannot be understated and include the Joad's truck--a real vehicle that stagehands move effortlessly around the stage in the dark; camp buildings and homes that seamlessly come and go; and rain--yes, rain--falling into specially built troughs in front of the stage.
The Grapes of Wrath
Novel by John Steinbeck
Adapted by Frank Galati
Directed by David M. Priest
Jan. 26, 7:30 p.m., $8
Jan. 27-29, 8 p.m., $10
Boise Little Theater,
100 E. Fort St., Boise
More info/tickets: 342-5104,