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THEATER REVIEW

College Cast's 'Wrath' Is Felt by the Audience

Chapman's staging of Steinbeck adaptation works like a spoken-word opera in a beautifully paced and articulated effort.

May 14, 1997|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ORANGE — Because American playwrights tend to avoid the sad episodes of our national history--Robert Schenkkan's "The Kentucky Cycle" is a great recent exception--Frank Galati's deeply felt two-act adaptation of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" becomes more valuable with time.

Possibly the greatest gift to the stage from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, the Galati-Steinbeck epic frequently plays out like spoken-word opera, with opera's knack for innocents sucked into a tragic vortex.

The downward spiral of "Wrath's" Dust Bowl refugees in the Depression is so relentless it's not surprising that it continues to give audiences the shivers--which was the feeling Sunday at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, where Chapman's intrepid drama department is staging a beautifully paced and articulated production, under Michael Nehring's direction.

"Do you like this?" a woman nearby hesitantly asked me at intermission. She was clearly sensing the play's chilliness, proof that Nehring and his generally strong student cast have no intention of softening the story's edges.

"The Grapes of Wrath" never asks to be liked, but it does demand our ears, taking in that strange Okie dialect and the long stream of Galati's speeches. Everyone has one--again, like an opera aria--and an early one delivered by Matthew McCray as disillusioned preacher Jim is so haunting that we know we're in for an intelligent production.

At the center, and leading the Joad family out of the Dust Bowl to the California promised land, is Andrew Moran as Tom Joad in an exceptional college-level performance. Hulking yet gentle, Moran conveys Tom's manly tenderness, moral confusions and heroically contemplative mind.

Troubled as college shows usually are by casting young actors in older characters' roles, Nehring's cast nevertheless seems to have gotten the Depression under their collective skins to an eerie degree--from Eric Alan Peterson's Noah and Bonnie Walker's Ma to Stephenie Farnell-Wilson's Rose and Thomas Hodge's Connie and Sean Cox's Al.

Anthony Powell leaves a lasting impression with two disparate characters along the road west, as well as Peter Westenhofer as a crazy migrant and Rebecca Frost as the guardian of a small patch of utopia in a land of thugs, starvation and death.

On the Waltmar's wide stage, we're made aware of the big, unforgiving parched land, with Nehring's choice of a spare, minimalist design. Sometimes, the view from the Waltmar's raked seating is of characters cast adrift in a vast wasteland, with not even Camile Coyne's meticulous period costumes any comfort.

The other potent signature element here is the mix of live trio music by guitarists Craig Wesley Brown and Wesley Hunt, with Sarah Knowles' fiddle accenting the brief bluegrass pieces. Again, less is more, in this fine work singing the sorrows of America's drifting poor.

* "The Grapes of Wrath," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 300 E. Palm Ave., Orange. Today-Saturday, 8 p.m. Ends Saturday. $2-$7. (714) 997-6812. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Andrew Moran: Tom Joad

Bonnie Walker: Ma

Simeon Denk: Pa

Matthew McCray: Jim

Stephenie Farnell-Wilson: Rose of Sharon

Thomas Hodge: Connie

Sean Cox: Al

Paul Mathers: Uncle John

Erik Alan Peterson: Noah

Kristin Randall: Granma

Aaron D. Kellner: Granpa

Anthony Powell: Muley, Floyd

Peter Westenhofer: Mayor

Rebecca Frost: Weedpatch camp director

A Chapman University production of Frank Galati's play, based on John Steinbeck's novel. Directed by Michael Nehring. Set and sound: Craig Wesley Brown. Music: Brown and Wesley Hunt. Lights: Stacey Ribeiro. Costumes: Camile Coyne.

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