Raising dust

The Grapes of Wrath

The Joad family, as portrayed by the TMCC theater department, leaves the Dust Bowl with California dreams.

The Joad family, as portrayed by the TMCC theater department, leaves the Dust Bowl with California dreams.

Photo By David Robert

It’s a simple dream that permeates the American mindset—family, home, a steady income. It’s one that has long uprooted people in search of better opportunities. John Steinbeck brought the struggle for that dream into heartbreaking relief in his Pultizer Prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

Truckee Meadows Community College is bringing the theater version of that story to the stage.

Set in 1939 on the heels of the Great Depression, the humble Joad family rises from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to seek the better life they believe awaits them in California. They board an old jalopy truck—a central stage prop—and head down the road toward their idyllic vision.

“My challenge is to grab my actors and stage the play in a way that the audience will pick up Steinbeck’s ideas: people scorned because they are different, the importance of family and the hypocrisies the people live their daily lives within,” says director Paul Aberasturi. “It’s important that I’m able to tell the story the way that John Steinbeck would have wanted it told, which goes beyond the screenplay.”

Musician Tumbleweed Tex sets the tone throughout the production. He strums his guitar, sings and plays harmonica to an array of period music that fits the theme and feel of America struggling to recover from the Great Depression, drawing inspiration from people like Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers.

“My family was from Texas, and [they] went through the Dust Bowl—many still clearly remember,” says Tumbleweed.

Dialect is critical in this play. The cast is careful to portray Oklahoma sharecroppers realistically, while ensuring that the dialect doesn’t get in the way of enunciation.

Bud Perry plays Tom Joad. He held minor roles in Urinetown and Rumors, and he directed his first show, Suddenly Untamed, this summer.

“This role is a blessing and a curse,” says Perry. “The hardest part about this is being true to the character because there is an emotional complexity. It’s hard to put myself in the shoes of somebody who is losing their family and their sense of self. It’s the emotional factor that is most challenging but also most rewarding.”

Perry says he hopes the audience doesn’t lose sight of our history, of “knowing where our roots came from, especially those of us living in the West right now.”

Stacy Spain, TMCC theater and art instructor, plays Ma Joad. Ma is the glue that holds the family together while it faces bleak circumstances. Her role is “all about restraint,” says Spain, and showing that stillness is as important as expression.

Dale Fast, a Reno Little Theater regular, is cast in the role of Jim Casey, a former preacher and central philosopher. Fast views his character as an “antihero” who evokes the everyman ideology onto the stage as a “moral compass for the Joad family.”

Central to the performance is the push and pull of human emotions that can lead to rage and its consequences. For that, the troupe relied on the experience of film expert and fight director Myrt Running Wolf. Running Wolf gauges the actors’ reactions both physically and emotionally. One fight scene has 10 actors carefully choreographed for every move. As the fisticuffs ensue, action is on every corner of the stage. Every punch, kick and smack against the skull is dramatized with attention to sounds, vocalizations and facial expressions.

TMCC’s production runs a little over two hours with quick-changing scenes. Many actors play two or three characters in the performance. This talented theater group works hard to create a memorable performance that explores the simple dream of the American mindset.