Rockville Little Theatre’s production of “The Grapes of Wrath” follows much the same path as John Steinbeck’s classic novel. Tom Joad (Doug Richesson) returns to Oklahoma from a stint in prison to find his family preparing to flee west to California. They are escaping the Dust Bowl as creditors seek to repossess their farm. As they travel, the family finds itself sinking deeper and deeper into the maw of Great Depression-era American capitalism and facing its endless deprivations first hand.
Rockville Little Theatre’s ensemble more than delivers…
Any retelling of “The Grapes of Wrath,” theatrical or otherwise, will live or die on how well it portrays the Joad family. Rockville Little Theatre’s ensemble more than delivers on this account. Each member brings a distinctive energy to his/her part, from the relentless optimism of Ma Joad (Karen Fleming) to the manic energy of Grandpa Joad (Tom Schiller). They paint a detailed portrait of an archetypal, simple family of middle-class American farmers. Their boundless generosity is matched only by their naivety as they chase a handbill with the vague promise of work 2,000 miles to California. Their easy familiarity in the first few scenes builds the tension nicely as they move into an uncertain future.
That journey to California represents another challenge to the production. Just how do you portray an odyssey across half the country over two hours and with a community theater budget? Steven Leshin’s set design provides the clever solution of having much of the Act 1 set revolve around the Joad’s beat up old jalopy. It rolls up and downstage to the various stops and camps where the scenes can play out. Combined with Stephen Deming’s projections for the broader scenes, original music by George Benskin, and some contextual voiceover work between scenes, the sense of time and place is consistently communicated well.
The Joads experience their share of loss before finally reaching California at the end of the first act but, of course, their troubles don’t end. Once there, they bounce between shanty Hoovervilles and government camps seeking the same nonexistent work promised in those handbills to tens of thousands of other families. When the work does come, it’s portioned out with poverty wages by greedy bosses who know they have an inexhaustible supply of desperate people they can burn through.
It’s here where the show’s themes really start to bloom. Tom finds his disillusioned preacher friend, Jim Casy (Brian Binney), has fallen in with a band of striking workers right as they’re accosted by a team of strikebreakers. Tom’s famous temper gets the better of him and the violence quickly escalates. Binney and Richesson’s thoughtful portrayal of their conversations on life and faith during the journey west provided some of Act 1’s emotional peaks. This makes it all the more tragic seeing them reduced to the sort of thuggish violence inflicted on so many during that time.
Meanwhile, Ma Joad preaches a passive resilience to her despairing family, unwilling to directly resist but never letting their increasingly dire circumstances beat her down. A few errant rays of humanity manage to shine through the darkness, but in the end her resolve doesn’t leave her family in any better shape than Tom and Jim’s violent resistance. They’re both equally impotent without the organization needed to band together and challenge the exploitative bosses and farm owners (This is barely subtext: Frank Galati’s stage adaptation does not cool Steinbeck’s fervent advocacy for an organized working class.)
Almost 100 years after the publication of Steinbeck’s novel, the plight of migrants in America is still regularly front-page news. Productions like this that keep “The Grapes of Wrath” in the public eye can remind us that we’re not as far apart from them as we might think.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
“The Grapes of Wrath” runs weekends through February 4, 2023 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville, MD 20851. Fore more information and to purchase tickets, go online.