There are basic human rights that we accept as a given (though under threat from time to time) such as a roof over your head, access to food, the ability to work, and protection by the law. This story is one where all of those things are taken away from a family and how they struggle to survive in the face of such unthinkable adversity. Yes, the extended Joad family are kicked off their farm in 1930’s dustbowl America and forced to travel to California on the promise of work. Along the way they discover all kinds of hardship and people who would take advantage of an over-abundance of labour during the Great Depression.
On the surface this is a bleak tale but it is the indomitable will of the mother, Ma Joad (an authoritative performance by Megan Wilding), that defies all assaults on her family and the calamities that beset them that resonates so strongly.
Our tale begins with newly paroled Tom Joad (interesting casting choice but one where Elle Harris excels) returning to the family farm. On the way he discovers ex-preacher Jim Casey (Andrew Creer) who is no longer moved by the spirit of the Lord as he once was. Seems young Tom spent four years inside for killing a man who had attacked him, a crime he does not regret. On learning of the family plight the decision is made to travel westwards where orange handbills promise plenty of work picking grapes and other fruit in the lush California valleys.
Three generations of the Joads including a reluctant Grampa (Luke Fewster), Granma (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), Ma and Pa Joad (Dacre Montgomery), Al Joad (Bevan Pfeiffer), Uncle John (Seamus Quinn), the pregnant Rose of Sharon (Becky Gulia), the two children Ruthie and Winfield (Brittany Morel and Jessica Paterson), Tom and Casey all pile into an old truck. This is amusingly yet effectively portrayed by a plush couch with the ‘children’ holding torches to signify headlights. There are two tragedies and warnings along the way that they are chasing fake dreams of a better life. But what else is there for them to do?
Once they get to California there are all manner of people willing to prey on their desperation. Seems those handbills have been more than effective in attracting families like the Joads which means the employers can slash wages to grossly unfair levels. Then there are the run-ins with the law whose officers have an aggressive attitude to all the ‘immigrants’ flooding into the State. The parallels to modern day situations in various parts of the world are obvious. Those confrontations see Casey on the run and Tom subsequently reprising his crime as he checks a commotion outside a work camp one night only to find the worst kind of trouble. As he leaves the family he vows to fight the injustice that is rife all around them. The play ends with a storm, a birth, and an act of charity that is well handled and moving.
The production is in the black box theatre of the Enright Studio and director Sandie Eldridge has chosen to have her actors stay in the space eschewing exits and entrances. They lurk in the wings when not in scenes. With such a simple set it’s the use of various props that creates the world – blue plastic sheet representing water/river; use of a door held upright then placed on the stage floor; the couch which is utilised in various ways; and the sort of detritus and assorted possessions that such a family accrues.
A Narrator (Stephanie Panozzo) periodically reads descriptive passages from the novel and observes the action while occasionally playing the harmonica. She also guides characters who have perished into the wings like some guardian angel. This allows us to accept why the dead are suddenly up and about as they have to get off the primary stage space.
The acting is good (as are, generally, the American accents) with Wilding and Harris featuring but I also liked Creer’s good-natured performance as Casey and Montgomery as a somewhat bewildered Pa Joad. Props go to Gordon-Anderson and Fewster playing characters well beyond their years. Gulia comes into her own in the later stages as her character goes from tragedy to offering an unusual and potent gift of generosity.
I wasn’t a fan, however, of the use of music that only had the effect of wrenching me out of the drama. I understand the temptation of the lyrical association of songs such as Do You Know the Way to San Jose and (a rock version of) California Dreaming but those songs are at least 30 years after the time period being depicted as were a couple of even more modern tracks. There was a great dance sequence full of energy and fun amidst the gloom of the family predicament and it worked well when the actors were performing The Clapping Song which is based on a 1930s number. But when the modern version is played over the top it again dissipated my immersion in the world.
Other than that this is the first time I have seen the second year acting students and they acquitted themselves well in an iconic American tale.
Directed by Sandie Eldridge, Written by Frank Galati based on the John Steinbeck novel, and featuring Elle Harris, Dacre Montgomery, Andrew Creer, Bevan Pfeiffer, Seamus Quinn, Megan Wilding, Becky Gulia, Stephanie Panozzo, Brittany Morel, Jessica Paterson, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Claudia Ware, Shalom Brune-Franklin, Luke Fewster, Rian Howlett, Ben Kindon and Lincoln Vickery, The Grapes of Wrath has two more performances, 7.30pm 27-28 August at the Enright Studio.