Canberra REP is opening its 2020 season in dramatic style with the city's first production of an award-winning 1988 play based on an American classic.
John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath was adapted for the stage by Frank Galati. The play's Broadway production won Tony Awards for best play and best director. Although the story is set in the US during the Great Depression, the story still resonates in a wider context today with its story of a struggling majority exploited by a powerful minority.
Journalist Alan Yuhas wrote, "Steinbeck didn't want us to lose hope; he wanted us to get angry at those who would strip hope from us."
The Grapes of Wrath is directed by Chris Baldock, his fifth production with the company, and has a cast of 20.
The Joad family are evicted from the dust bowl of their Oklahoma farm and decide to head west to California, where they have heard there is plenty of work available. Along the way they pass through many communities but the people are seldom friendly: the poor and needy masses who pass through are viewed as disruptive and frightening. The Joads suffer exploitation and loss, among other trials. But they keep going, a large family and their worldly goods aboard an old truck heading hopefully for an uncertain future.
Cast member Michael Sparks says, "I think it is a story of the human spirit and human endurance. It's about people who are forced to leave where they are and are trying to find something better."
And, he says, it remains all too relevant, the Joads' plight having its parallels with refugees fleeing from places affected by climate change and other problems
Sparks plays Jim Casy, the former minister of a charismatic church who has had a crisis of faith and has developed his own ideas about sin and mankind, at one point saying, "There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do."
Sparks, who was born in the US, says he comes from a line of charismatic Southern Christians so that background is familiar to him, although he hasn't has Casy's particular experience.
"I've never had to struggle with faith like Casy did, having to manage that and work through that," he says. "I've been trying to put my mind into that time and the absolute desperation of the time."
Casy eventually finds a new, more secular way to bring people together.
Sparks says David Bennett, who plays Granpa Joad, is from Oklahoma and is the production's dialect coach. tutoring the cast in the flat-sounding regional accent.
Among those cast members is James McMahon, 23, who is making his post-university Canberra stage debut as the second-oldest Joad child. Tom Joad has just been released from prison after serving four years for killing a man in a fight and steps up to help the family make its way on their long trek.
While the attitudes of Joad family members to their situation vary, from Ma's stoic pragmatism to Pa's wounded pride to younger brother Al's obsession with cars and girls, Tom takes a broader societal view. McMahon says Tom is "very sensitive to the injustice that is going on in his country" with its imbalances of power and people being displaced from their homes.
McMahon, who has mainly worked in comedy, says the character and the play are departures for him. Not being able to assess his performance from the immediate audience reaction of laughter will take getting used to, he says, but he's enjoying the challenge of taking on a serious dramatic role in a story he likes that has something important to say.
- The Grapes of Wrath, By Frank Galati, adapted from the novel by John Steinbeck. Canberra REP Theatre, preview February 13 at 8pm, season February 14 to 29. canberrarep.org.au.