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Review: The harsh beauty of A Noise Within's 'The Grapes of Wrath'

March 05, 2013|By Margaret Gray
  • "The Grapes of Wrath" at A Noise Within is directed by Michael Michetti. The adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel is by Frank Galati.
"The Grapes of Wrath" at A Noise Within is directed by Michael… (Craig Schwartz )

Whatever your cause for complaint — traffic, work, kids, in-laws — as you settle in to A Noise Within’s production of “The Grapes of Wrath,” you’ll soon see that the Joads have it worse. The epic suffering of the Depression-era Oklahoma family, adapted for the stage in 1988 by Frank Galati from John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, will make your annoyances feel like luxuries.

Or it could, except that this revival, despite its visual beauty (a lovely spare set by Melissa Ficociello and breathtaking lighting by Elizabeth Harper) and Michael Michetti's technically competent direction, has a curious emotional flatness.

Its period feel may be partly to blame: The show opens with the ensemble in charming costumes (by Garry Lennon) performing “songs for the common folk” (musical direction by Robert Oriol) in a “free concert for Dust Bowl refugees.”

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Although quite pleasant, the sequence evokes a historical reenactment, casting a pall of quaintness over the proceedings. Other design elements follow suit: The truck that carries the Joads to California, assembled like a puzzle out of household items, is adorable, not pathetic. The fight sequences, excellently choreographed by Ken Merckx, feel excellently choreographed.

Certainly the script, in condensing a sweeping saga into a matter of hours, privileges plot over character development. Tragedies occur at a clip that becomes almost kitschy, giving the actors little to do but exhibit tremendous human endurance — which can be hard to distinguish from indifference — in their wake.

Acoustics are poor, so voices sound thin in the cavernous theater. Lead Steve Coombs does a solid job as the fiery-tempered young Tom Joad, Matt Gottlieb is appealing as lapsed preacher Jim Casy, and Deborah Strang makes a likable, folksy Ma Joad. But only Gary Ballard, as foolish, peppery Grampa Joad, conveys enough life onstage to make us truly mourn his death.

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“The Grapes of Wrath,” A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. See website for performance schedule. Ends May 11. $46-$54. (626) 356-3100 or www.ANoiseWithin.org. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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