by John Lombard
The Grapes of Wrath - Canberra Rep
Reviewed 15 February. Runs 13 - 29 February
Parolee Tom Joad (James McMahon) returns to his Oklahoma family farm to find it empty, as though struck by the wrath of God. Dust storms, drought, the Great Depression, and the bank have shunted the Joad family off their land. Tom reunites with his family at his uncle’s home to find the Joads packing the bric-a-brac of their lives onto a truck. The Joads are setting forth on a pilgrimage to California, the promised land where they can start anew.
Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s epic novel squeezes a saga onto the stage. Director Chris Baldock’s sombre but precise approach creates insightful vignettes, telling this dense story in vivid snapshots.
The large cast realised the sprawl of characters with discipline, with standout performances by Karen Vickery as stalwart Ma Joad and Michael Sparks as eccentric preacher Jim Casey.
Character relationships in particular were strong and believable. The grim determination of the characters conveyed the dire situation, but spoiled the family’s blossoming disillusionment.
As the Joad family tumbles from poverty to hunger to slavery, they live each day in anticipation of the next degradation by the stormtrooper minions of greedy industry. Salvation comes from politics, with a New Deal-funded worker camp an oasis of culture and dignity. Union solidarity is the play’s confident, messianic answer to the corporate greed that puts profit before people.
The exceptional set by Baldock was scoured but colourful, a perfect match for the road weary but lusty Joad family. The revolving stage of Rep was put to excellent use to convey the lurching road journey. Meticulous detail in props compensated for sparse scenery.
The Grapes of Wrath is a bleak story, but like the Joad family this production has a potent spirit that fortifies the soul against the ordeal.