Farm to stage
The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck’s sprawling, panoramic novel becomes a sprawling, panoramic show in this large-scale production by the UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance. The story follows the Joad clan as they depart Dust Bowl-stricken Oklahoma (where the bank has foreclosed on their struggling farm) and embark on a desperate odyssey to California, seeking jobs as fruit pickers. Needless to say, things don’t work out the way they planned.
The cast of 27 ranges from children to older adults, and includes several master’s of fine arts and doctoral candidates (some quite experienced) in the leading roles. There are scenes involving birth and death (violent and otherwise) and the body count rivals a Shakespeare tragedy. There are happy times as well: chance meetings between long-separated friends, big family meals cooked over a campfire. And social justice comes up often—talk of lawmen who side with landowners, heartless bankers confiscating land from impoverished farmers, screaming fruit pickers demanding a living wage and nameless goons who swoop in at night to burn their squatters’ camp. Also in the mix are discouraged family members who just wander off and disappear, wind and flood, and music encompassing sturdy hymns and the blues.
Strong performances include John Zibell (a doctoral candidate who’s been acting for decades) as Tom Joad, and JanLee Marshall (an MFA candidate) as resourceful Ma, taking setbacks in stride and making sacrifices to hold the struggling family together. Director Miles Anderson (who grew up in what was Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe) brings out the jarring social tensions in the story.