Greg Wike feels the connection every time he steps on stage in "The Grapes of Wrath." His grandparents migrated in the Dust Bowl era from Kansas to California.
"Portraying Pa Joad brings real tears to my eyes at certain moments, as I think about my own grandparents and also the plight of today's unfortunate among us," Wike says. "It comes from me feeling the play, the beautiful words, and remembering that I am telling my grandparents' story."
We caught up with Wike via email to talk about the Good Company Players production of the 1988 play — based on the classic 1939 novel by John Steinbeck — at the 2nd Space Theatre, now in its opening weekend.
Question: Tell us about your character.
Pa is about my own age of 61, a proud father of six who lives on his Oklahoma farm. He is a proud man whose sense of self-worth has always been based on his ability to work hard and provide for his family. As the play unfolds, finances are challenged and unexpected situations arise that require more decisiveness and adaptability. So he increasingly but reluctantly relies on Ma's steadfast calm and strength to provide stability for the family.
It is a great character to portray because of the changes Pa goes through, from the optimism and joviality of his first scene through the series of tragedies that eventually push him close to completely giving up hope.
What is your "Grapes" experience?
I have never read the book nor seen the movie. However, I was in the first GCP production of "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1994, and it was the most profoundly emotional acting experience I had ever been a part of. The intimacy of the 2nd Space Theatre obviously presents some physical challenges to its 24-member cast, movement of props and scenes and action along the road, camps, rivers, floods, as well as the movement of the fully-loaded truck (which is actually assembled and moved by the cast on stage).
What do you know about your grandparents' journey?
Now that they are no longer alive, I wish I had spent more time with them to hear their stories in detail. My mother is 83 and came over with them via Route 66 in 1932 when she was only 2. They settled in the Fillmore/Ventura area of Southern California. Fortunately, due to my grandpa's strong work ethic and pride, he was able to pick up odd jobs to provide for his family.
My mom says that times were hard, and she remembers that for one supper, they only had a single jar of home-canned tomatoes to eat. My grandmother grew up in Missouri, and she did write me a letter once describing her simple but busy life on the farm. She said her father once hid the outlaw Jesse James in the barn and would to take dinners out to him.
Talk about the production.
The play is directed by Patrick Tromborg, who also designed the family truck, which is disassembled at intermission, and all the truck parts then become the set pieces for the second act (wheels become campfires, sides become tents or walls, etc). Members of the ensemble sometimes are silent parts of the scene, holding up walls at an angle or portraying scarecrows silouetted in the background. Unlike in the movie, we ask the audience to use some imagination as we stage scenes at the Colorado River or during a rainstorm and flood.
Are you a longtime actor?
I have lived in northeast Fresno since 1988. I retired two years ago after being a registered nurse for 33 years, including 22 at the Veterans Affairs hospital. My wife is also an RN. I started doing community theater when I was 30, after seeing a play and having the desire to experience what being on stage would be like. I have never had an acting class, nor been in plays in school. As I don't sing or dance particularly well, I stick to comedies or strong dramas.
After eight shows with GCP, I took a 19-year break to spend more time with my wife and family. Now that I am retired, I have the time to devote to the 12 weeks of full-time rehearsals and runs that GCP shows demand. I was nervous about jumping back in after such a long stage absence, but my self-confidence has finally taken hold, and I am so glad to get back into it, especially with this play, this cast and crew and this director.
"Grapes of Wrath" has a lot to say about burning social issues of the time. What can it say to us in the present day?
Even today, 75 years later, our society is continuing to deal with issues that the Joads and thousands of other Americans experience: joblessness, foreclosure, hunger, migrant workers, unionization, wealth distribution, healthcare access and discrimination. The importance of family love, generosity, faith, will and determination helps the Joads overcome their challenges.
"The Grapes of Wrath," through Feb. 23. 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave. www.gcplayers.com, (559) 266-0660. $16, $15 students and seniors.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, email@example.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.