John Steinbeck’s masterpiece of abject despair and a glimmer of hope has come to extraordinary life at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. It’s the first bona fide hit of the 2011 season and ought to become required viewing for all those who believe they understand what it must be like to hold a family together even as nature’s elements, greedy men and cruel bullies of either sex bring on wave after wave of unbelievable calamity.
Thank goodness it’s only fiction.
Frank Galati’s 1990 adaption for the stage of the 200,000-word novel is a miracle of craft, detail and style. In just under three hours, the incredible journey of the Joad clan from barren Oklahoma (what the drought didn’t dry up the consequent bank foreclosures destroyed) to—apparently: the flyers wouldn’t lie—job-rich, fruit-ripe California is masterfully chronicled.
Director Antoni Cimolino has carefully brought together a cast and crew that are at one with his vision and Steinbeck’s exceptionally well-balanced genius for storytelling. As much misery as there is along the way, the anything-goes humour is as welcome as needed rain. Of course, being the Festival’s current general director with over two-dozen years’ experience in a variety of capacities, Cimolino knows better than almost anyone the capabilities of the resources at hand.
From the opening tableau with the gritty, naturally rendered chorus singing of the highway trek soon to be embarked upon, it’s clear that the coming drama will be rooted in music (Michael Smith composed the play’s original score). Employing three minstrels (Anna Atkinson, George Meanwell and Andrew Penner—who also served effectively as two of the narrators), added a wonderfully Shakespearean/Greek component even as lutes, flutes and drums were replaced by guitar/banjo, saw and fiddle. The result is a compellingly raw-and-rustic moveable soundscape whose frequent interventions kept the pace moving steadily forward and the ear delighted with the bounty of instrumental colours and infectious rhythms.
John Arnone’s sets are on the same page as the both the prose and the play. The verdant scrims—one for each act—subliminally raise both the curtain and the artistic bar. A heady mix of minimalism (the Joad’s “pushed outa shape house”) and vibrant detail (the jalopy that—somehow—ferries the disenfranchised souls to the land of plenty) suits everyone’s purpose to a tee. Moreover, the realization of fire, wind and water is a visual tour de force. The dust bowl effect can be felt (some might well reach for their inhalers); the cheeky bathing scene (replete with a saucy moon chuck to boot!) is inspired comic relief; the menacing threat of rain-fuelled flooding packs even more punch due to recent events caused by the unprecedented engorgements of the Assiniboine, Richelieu and Mississippi Rivers; a covey of campfires and tent city “cleansing” deftly reveal the twin sides of burning heat—the sudden impact of gunfire and lightning creates real fear on both sides of the footlights.
As good as all of the above is, it’s the actors who bring this production to unforgettable life and death.
Playing Ma, Janet Wright is truly in her element. She manages to superbly combine the maternal instinct (keeping the family together at any cost), tough love (telling her pregnant daughter that she deserves a punch from her mate for whining—a palatable shiver ran through the crowd) and eternal optimism in the face of quashed dreams (“We ain’t gonna die out, People is goin’ on.”). Similarly, Victor Ertmanis infuses Pa with familial loyalty and bitter resignation.
Their eldest son, Tom is just out of prison—on parole, having killed a man in self-defence. Evan Buliung finds just the right tone of simmering anger while realizing that he’d be better off in jail than being pushed around by unscrupulous labour contractors and their paid-off police protection. Chilina Kennedy utilizes compelling wide-eyed innocence as Rose of Sharon. The mother-to-be (and vrai flower of the brood) suffers the loss of many relations in her young life only to courageously offer it to a complete stranger. It’s hard to imagine the closing moments done with greater sensitivity.
Brother Al comes in the easy going, occasionally earnest form of Paul Nolan: master mechanic, horny toad and—so unlike Tom—not interested in getting involved with systemic change.
Steinbeck uses a self-defrocked reverend to deliver many of his finest commentaries and provide an outsider’s point of view. Tom McCamus turns in a fully nuanced performance that is equally at home with bawdy banter, big-picture philosophy or disdain for his former calling.
The remaining cast and supporting players—notably Randy Hughson as Uncle John who only finds comfort for sins past in the blur of alcohol—have cottoned on to Steinbeck’s lessons and Cimolino’s sensitivity in a way that must be experienced to be appreciated. JWR