Each time I've seen Frank Galati's 1988 stage adaptation of "The Grapes of Wrath," which came half a century after Steinbeck's celebrated novel and the famed film version, I've given thanks. What could have been a so-so adaptation decades after the fact instead became a beautifully crafted piece of art in its own right. I've been entranced each time with Galati's ability to pare Steinbeck's words and visuals into a tight, moving piece of work that does justice to the story's sorrowful swagger.
That goes for my latest viewing, the Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre. While there are some uneven aspects to this production, including acting and staging, the overall impact is strong.
What I like best about the show is director Patrick Tromborg's deep empathy with the material. He also designed the scenery, and his artistic vision involves using both the scenic components and his large cast in a swirl of movement and mood-setting in what you might call Dust Bowl living theater. (Ginger Kay Lewis Reed's period costumes help with the gritty effect.) An ensemble member might be a scarecrow at one moment and holding a piece of wall the next.
There's a beautifully theatrical sensibility at work here, and even though I would have liked to have more economy of movement and brisker transitions while one scene dissolves into another, I find the fluid staging a strong point of the production.
A centerpiece of that staging is the converted Hudson truck used by the extended Joad family to make its famous trek from Oklahoma to California. We watch that truck come together, assembled by the cast itself, and there's something about its clunky, low-tech silhouette that seems just right. With the clan packed in, it's easy to imagine the vehicle putt-putting across parched countryside flat as glass, and then gearing up for strained, agonizing climbs up mountain passes.
Marc Gonzalez is a robust Tom Joad, recently paroled, who returns to his family homestead only to find it dry as dust. Gonzalez, a musical theater veteran, has consistently been pursuing challenging dramatic roles recently, and it's wonderful to see him growing in those roles. (I still want to feel more warmth from him onstage.) Other strong performers among the large cast include Noel Adams as the preacher, David Otero as Grampa and Greg Wike as Pa.
Amelia Ryan, as a hard-bitten Ma, is a standout. I love the moment early on when she stops and realizes that her beloved Tom is back from prison. And her steady, unsentimental — but still deeply felt — performance at the end of the first act as the family finally makes it across the California border makes that moment simply soar.
Two other smaller roles of note: Giovanni Navarro makes a strong impact as the odd brother Noah. And in a touching monologue, Ken Stocks, recounting as a father how he lost his children to heart failure, is memorable.
There is room for this production during the run to sharpen up and find a brisker sense of confidence. (I saw it opening weekend, but because of illness had a delay writing the review.) One major disappointment is the music. If you can't have live musicians on stage, it's probably best to simply play the recorded music without having actors pantomiming on real instruments. And while Tromborg uses projected vintage photographs — often haunting images — to good effect, the extended white backdrop on which those images appear looks a little flimsy, frankly.
Finally, the all-important last scene felt rushed instead of tender. This powerful moment in theater is all about the visuals, and it should be choreographed with the precision of an elegant dance. Something as simple as having the projections and lights (the design is by Evan Commins) finally go dark at the same time adds to sense of finesse.
That said, I found this "Grapes" a moving experience. So many of the themes that Steinbeck addresses — poverty, unions, stewardship of the land, the struggle for human dignity — still resonate 75 years later. That's a sobering thought.
"The Grapes of Wrath," through Feb. 23, 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave., Fresno. gcplayers.com, (559) 266-0660. $18, $15 students and seniors.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.