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Theater Reviews : Small-Scale 'Grapes of Wrath' Loses Epic Breadth

March 16, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — The most impressive thing about Frank Galati's adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath" may be the way he keeps faith with the book's epic sweep. John Steinbeck's famous novel about rural yearning during the Great Depression comes at you with size and melodramatic vision, and it's remarkable how well Galati was able to suggest that on stage.

Despite a legion of naysayers who thought it couldn't be done, Galati brought his version to Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company in 1988 and later moved it to Broadway, where the show won a Tony Award for best play of 1990.

Since then, Galati's adaptation has become the standard for any theater group, big or small, that wants to do Steinbeck. To be successful, you have to give it room and a certain Dust Bowl grandeur; being economical just won't work.

But that's what we get at Orange Coast College, which opened last weekend with a hemmed-in production based on Galati's staging. There's not much space to work with in the Drama Lab Theatre, and director Alex Golson and set designer David Scaglione respond by paring everything down. It's clear they didn't have much of a budget to work with, and that's one of the problems. Galati's "The Grapes of Wrath" requires more than a little extravagance, earthy and otherwise.

A good contrast--and one that shows how well a college drama department can tackle "The Grapes of Wrath"--is the production Cal State Fullerton mounted a year ago. Director Don Finn and a group of talented student actors and technicians offered a production full of ambience and breadth, all the while capitalizing on Galati's stage ingenuity.

The floorboards, almost magically, opened up to become several things, from campfires to graves to the Colorado River, where characters splashed about in a ritualized bathing scene. At OCC, Golson and Scaglione incorporate the same inventions, but they're rudimentary. When their river materializes, you have the sense it's merely a basin under the stage, not something more evocative.

*

Part of the problem is Lonnie Alcaraz's lighting, which could do more to generate a mood that inspires the viewer's imagination to take over. On the other hand, Donna Mae Dickens' costumes are excellent, giving the production a much-needed aura of authenticity. Her clothes look as soiled and vulnerable as the lives of the Joad family that wears them.

Dickens' details work, but few others do in this production. Perhaps the most distracting feature is the cardboard representation of the wheezing, broken-down truck the Joads journey in from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the lush, but cruel, fields of California. With it's bug-eyed headlights and caricatured look, the truck seems like something out of Disneyland's new Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin ride.

As for the acting, there's zealousness from top to bottom; too bad there's not more finesse as well.

P.J. Agnew provides Tom with a degree of rough-hewn humanism, but the portrayal lacks depth. We want more from him, as we do from the rest of the cast. The performances are soft and folksy, and we don't always feel the resignation that comes with their hardship. In this family, there's a little too much Waltons and not enough Joads.

* "The Grapes of Wrath," Orange Coast College's Drama Lab Theatre, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. Ends March 26. $6 to $8. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. P.J. Agnew: Tom Joad

George Almond: Jim Casey

Bill Nelson: Pa

Ellen Walcutt: Brown Ma

Rita R. Strong: Granma

Brewster Loud: Granpa

Peter Kreder: Noah

Jim Carnett: Uncle John

Melissa M. Nelson: Ruthie

Mike Toledano: Winfield

Nectar Amber Rose: Rose of Sharon

Donovan T. McGrath: Connie Rivers

Pat Bruno: Al

Donald E. Hansing: Floyd Knowles

Jennie McKenzie: Floyd's wife

Anna Fitzwater: Elizabeth Sandry

An Orange Coast College production of Frank Galati's adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel. Directed by Alex Golson. Set: David Scaglione. Costumes: Donna Mae Dickens. Lighting: Lonnie Alcaraz. Choreography: Lana Snyder Devore. Stage manager: Rob Stayner.

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