Realism and Wrath

James McGinty/The Detroit Monitor/November 1993

John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath” resonates with the timelessness and universality of the plight of the victims of natural disasters. Henry Ford Community College Theatre Department brings to life the dustbowl farmers of the 1930s as they are forced to migrate from their foreclosed farms in the adaptation of Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

This production starts with a depression era slide show accompanied by the heartfelt song “I’ve Got to Know” by Woody Guthrie to get us in the appropriate downtrodden mood. More than half of the music in the play is by Guthrie with many of the songs arranged by Loretta Vickerman and Jim McKinney for hammered dulcimer and fiddle. Here they play all parts for dulcimer and fiddle with smooth, professional polish, while Jack Price handles the guitar and vocals. Some might say that Price has too fine a voice to sing Guthrie songs but that’s too lefthanded of a compliment for me to endorse. Price’s version of “Deportee” plucks at our heartstrings.

Joe Hickey as the ex-Reverend Jim Casey is the most believable on stage. He used to be a “burning busher” who liked to get the people “glory shouting” but now has lost his way in traditional religion. Hickey’s Casey emanates patience and understanding and expresses his love of the people. He’s no Ivory Tower intellectual and comes to live and die for the labor union movement.

Brent Wellman plays the fresh out of prison, won’t take nothing from anybody Tom Joad with an unrelenting hard edge. He’s too concerned about justice to fall in love, unlike his younger brother Al, here played with a fresh innocence by Darryl Strasser. Jack C. Valian does a good job as the dim wit brother. Noah, who doesn’t have the stuff to stay the course. he might be the one Okie “that don’t have any sense or feeling,” like the gas station owner (Tom Dickieson) says about all Okies.

Director George Popovich displays his penchant for realism by bringing the three brothers together to bathe in tubs of water concealed beneath the stage. Tom just splashes water on his face and hair but Al jumps right in the pushes Noah in the tub. This provides great, unexpected comic relief. Earlier in the play, male family members remove dirt by the shovels full from another stage pit in order to bury heartbroken Grandpa (Jerry Burd). In the second act, another water scene depicting sandbagging in the face of rising water provides a thrilling, cinema-like emotional experience.

Tracey Spada gives us an immature, pie-in-sky believing Rose of Sharon, also barefooted. There’s no toe-spring footgear here. Either you got’em or you don’t. Kevin Walsh contributes as four different characters in the play, most notable as the Man Going Back. He brings great energy to the anger and woefulness of this character.

There are too many other characters in this very large cast to mention them all (the children are very steady and patient), but all can take pleasure in knowing they have done justice to a great American classic!

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