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Theater Review: 'The Grapes Of Wrath' At A Noise Within

Sara Itkis |
March 28, 2013 | 8:34 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

The cast of "The Grapes of Wrath" at A Noise Within. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
The cast of "The Grapes of Wrath" at A Noise Within. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Every now and then I go to a play, and it reminds me that this is exactly what theater is for. This weekend, A Noise Within's “Grapes of Wrath,” directed by Michael Michetti, did just that.

Entering the theater, the audience is greeted by a sign that reads “Free concert tonight for Dust Bowl refugees; Songs of the common folk,” and a small group of banjo, guitar and harmonica-wielding men, with overalls, plaid button-downs and the whole shebang. As the play is about to begin, they perform an ensemble version of Woody Guthrie’s “Ain’t Got No Home.” It’s an anthem that sums up the plight of the Joads, and of the countless stricken families who were forced to leave their land and try their luck out West. As the Great Depression and the droughts of the 1930’s set in, hundreds of thousands of workers and their families were made to give up everything they had known and worked for, pack what was left onto their “jalopies,” and travel westward to start their lives anew. Many didn’t survive the journey, and the rest were met with more unemployment and, if they did find work, starvation wages, when they reached their destinations. And so, this is the fate that awaits the Joad family from Oklahoma, as the band plays the final chords of “Ain’t Got No Home,” and the proverbial curtain rises. The stage is bare and the backdrop is understated, colored with simple shades that depict the time of day; they convey the infinite flat expanse of the country. The set pieces, though elaborate, are few and made to look as though they have been put together from scratch, and we even see the construction of the truck that will carry the Joads on their journey. Thus, the atmosphere is established as we enter the dusty world of the Southwest in the Great Depression. 

“I been thinkin’,” says Casy, yet again. “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of.” These are the words of the prophet-like Jim Casy (Matt Gottlieb), an ex-priest who “lost the spirit” and now spends his days sitting cross-legged and barefoot, pondering the human condition. This concept of universal oneness is a theme that John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” adapted for the stage by Frank Galati, returns to repeatedly. When Tom Joad (Steve Coombs) meets Casy on his way home from a term in prison and invites him to travel west with the family, the preacher’s philosophy and its meaning in the socially skewed world in which they live becomes intertwined with their journey. Tom’s mother speaks of a greater whole when the matter of life and death arises, more and more frequently the further the Joads travel. Played by the magnificent Deborah Strang, Ma Joad struggles to keep the family together with her fierce love. Strang and Coombs’ mother-son chemistry is tangible, as together they lead the spectacular cast. They cry, they laugh, they starve, they dance (choreographed by Justin Eick) and they search for a better place together. Michetti tastefully keeps all elements of the play understated in order to focus on the raw emotions and intense relationships. “Grapes of Wrath” is like one long heartbreak. Considering the play runs over two and a half hours long, it begins to be burdensome. But the sincerity of the piece moves more powerfully than I could have imagined.

To contact Staff Reporter Sara, email her here.


“The Grapes of Wrath,” is playing at A Noise Within (3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena) through May 11. Tickets are $46-$54. More information can be found at ANoiseWithin.org.




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