Transcript: Connie Meng Review aired Thursday, April 7, 2005
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Huck and Jim photo
Priscilla Lindsay as Ma Joad and Craig Mathers as Tom Joad. Photo: Alex Ottaviano

The Grapes of Wrath

Syracuse Stage, Syracuse

Syracuse Stage, in a co-production with Indiana Repertory Theatre, has mounted a powerful production of Frank Galati's award-winning adaptation of John Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH. This story of survival against impossible odds is a moving tribute to the essential goodness of the human spirit. As Director Michael Donald Edwards said and I quote, "It is a timely moment in our history to present this seminal work. THE GRAPES OF WRATH offers a stark examination of how we organize a society economically - how do we balance the demands of business against fairness and justice for the common man?"

Scott Bradley has designed a spare set that allows for the panoramic sweep of the Joad family's journey, from their re-possessed and destroyed home to their final refuge in a deserted barn. Their overloaded truck is a terrific example of excellent stagecraft. Mr. Bradley also makes good use of the onstage pool.

The lighting design of Lap-Chi Chu and Todd Reishman's sound combine to create crackling campfires complete with crickets and one of the best stage rainstorms I've seen, especially the realistic sound of its beginning and ending. The lighting of the penultimate scene in the barn and the finale is magical.

A minor quibble - B. Modern's costumes in general convey the period, however they seemed too clean and un-worn, particularly those of Ma and Rose of Sharon. Also, did children wear thick-soled sneakers in 1938?

The large cast is on the whole excellent in 41 roles, many of which are doubled. Craig Mathers is outstanding as Tom, the unlikely hero, as is Priscilla Lindsay as Ma. Their Act II scene together is very strong.

Robert K. Johansen as the lapsed preacher Casy, Robert Elliott as Pa, Andrew Ahrens as Al and Lisa Joyce as Rose of Sharon all create strong, believable characters. I'd also like to mention Caitlin Hart, who is very good as Elizabeth Sandy.

The other stand-out in the cast is Mitchell J. Mills as Uncle John. He is especially strong in his Act II scene with the still-born baby.

The three accomplished musicians, Tim Grimm who composed and adapted the music, Christopher Walz and David Wierhake add a great deal to the production.

Director Edwards has done a masterful job of staging this epic piece. He's helped his cast to create believable characters - not only the principals, but the many small roles as well. He's used the car with discretion so that its movement never becomes distracting, and has found every bit of humor that exists in this dark story. Mr. Edwards has effectively staged the raid using the sounds of axe handles on the fence and flashlights, and the final picture of Rose of Sharon in the barn is almost unbearably moving.

One of the things I enjoy at Syracuse Stage is their programs. They always include a great deal of information, often historical, related to the production. For THE GRAPES OF WRATH they've printed a "Timeline of the Dust Bowl", including photographs. I'd like to quote from their March 1937 entry which consists of an excerpt from Roosevelt's second inaugural address. "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." The people in this play have far too little in the material sense, but they possess an abundance of humanity. This is a first-rate production of a powerful and haunting play.

On a scale of one to five the Syracuse Stage/IRT co-production of THE GRAPES OF WRATH gets five oranges. For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.

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