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Review: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ at WaterTower Theatre

Busted flat. Cameron Cobb, Stephanie Dunnam, Hannah Plemons, Miles Shickman and Steven Pounders in The Grapes of Wrath. Photo by Mark Oristano.

Addison’s Water Tower Theatre is presenting the stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The show won a Tony Award on Broadway in 1990. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says it’s a big effort for a big novel. But in some ways, not big enough.

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The stage adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath opens with a little, mordant bit of slide-guitar blues, a song about how, down in Oklahoma, my girl fainted in the rain. It took a bucket of dirt to bring her round again.

The Dust Bowl is back, at full force. The Southwest is in its third year of some of the worst drought conditions we’ve ever had. Then there’s the staggering economy, even in Texas. And now, finally, the Steppenwolf stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, arrives on a Dallas-area stage.

Despite all the music Frank Galati’s adaptation has, it’s not a musical. But the music is some of the most moving stuff in it. It lends period flavor and local grit, it brings both lively square-dance rhythms and lean, mournful loneliness to Steinbeck’s saga of ordinary Okies struggling to survive. By the way, that’s Sonny Franks on the slide guitar, playing the dirt-poor blues. With his musical chops and his feel for this downhome material, Franks is one of the more evocative presences in the WaterTower production.

In fact, back in 1990, when the stage adaptation played Broadway, it was hard not to see this Grapes of Wrath as an American response to the musical, Les Miserables, which had opened in New York the year before. Both shows adapted national epics. Both of their originating novels helped shape memories of pivotal historic moments that were financial and political crises, ones that rocked each country. Both stage shows came at the end of the Reagan-Thatcher ’80s, and both countered that era’s unleashed moneymaking; they foregrounded a grim vision of the neglected underclass going under.

But as noted, The Grapes of Wrath isn’t a musical. So one wishes all of designer Barbara Cox’s costumes at Water Tower weren’t so clean and pressed and the performers weren’t so energetic and on their toes. It’s 1939 –  the last time catastrophic weather and the failures of capitalism nearly wrecked our country. The characters who curse the banks should sound pretty familiar to us today. The Joad family’s farmhouse has been repossessed and knocked over so they can’t really sneak back in and live there. They pile into their sad wreck of a truck and trek to California in a desperate gamble to find work — even to find food. On the way, they have to bury Grandpa in a ditch. They can’t even afford a decent burial.

These people are beaten down. They should be huddling for warmth and looking terrified and tired. True, the Okies just kept on keeping on, even in the face of prejudice and armed resistance from goons and sheriffs in the pay of landowners. But that’s the point: The only things they have going for them are their own muscle and hungry need to work. Pretty much everything else is gone.

Clean shirts, pressed slacks. Inside: Mikaela Krantz, Stephanie Dunnam, Conner Wedgeworth. Outside: Cameron Cobb, Arvin Combs, Steven Pounders, Stan Graner, Austin Tindle, Jason Johnson-Spinos. Photo by Mark Oristano.

Of course, we know all this, and we know Steinbeck’s novel isn’t just a depressing slog. Ma Joad and the ex-preacher, Jim Casy, are on hand to offer different kinds of spiritual and political uplift. But their nobility and preachiness have always been chief weaknesses of the novel, and Galati’s adaptation is nothing if not faithful to the novel and its clunky dialogue, certainly more faithful than the classic John Ford film. Thankfully, Ma Joad and Jim Casy are embodied here with touching conviction by Stephanie Dunnam and Stephen Pounders.

As for Tom Joad — he’s the future of the family, the young man determined to get everyone to California — Cameron Cobb is a little baby-faced to be fully convincing as a hard-working field hand and ex-con. But Cobb delivers his lines with the bitten-off accent and swallowed emotions they really need. He’s also one of the better emotional facets of this show. It’s only at the end — with Tom’s famous outpouring to his mother, explaining why he has to leave — it’s only then that Cobb unleashes the heartbreak.

Cobb: “And I’ll be everywhere in the dark. I’ll be everywhere you look. Whenever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever there’s a cop beating up a fella, I’ll be there. Whenever our folks eat what they raise and live in the houses they live in, I’ll be there, too, see?”

Dunham: “When it’s all blowed over, you’ll come back? You find us.”

Cobb: “Sure.”

In the 1940 film version, Henry Fonda spoke those lines like an inspiring call to action. On Broadway, Gary Sinise made them into a tough little guy’s vow of revenge. Remarkably, Cobb turns them, simply, into a son’s tearful reassurance to his mother.

If anything, the production should be just as simple and stark. But it’s characteristic here that — back at the start, soon after we first see Tom — he comes upon his family’s abandoned, knocked-over farmhouse. He breaks in with Casy and finds a candle to light the darkness. Except, on stage, it’s not actually dark, mostly just a little dim. So when Cobb lights the candle, it’s not that big a deal.

Imagine if all we could see in the theater was just that weak, little, guttering flame in a cavernous, pitch-black emptiness. It’d be an apt opening symbol – particularly when the first lines spoken come from Steinbeck’s famous beginning pages: “The dawn came, but no day.”  He’s describing the sunless blackouts that blanketed the countryside, caused by the huge, thick, dust storms.

We begin in blackness and in dust, we end in rain. Imagine if, at the end, we fully sensed the terror and danger when a torrential storm nearly floods the surviving Joads out of their boxcar refuge. They’re stuck there because Rose of Sharon (Mikaela Krantz) can’t leave. She’s about to give birth. Designer Leann Ellis provides the lighting effect of falling rain, but it’s just pale-gray streaks of grey light running up and down. Again, there’s no terrifying darkness. No real rising flood water, no kicked-up dirt. Of course, this is theater, the staging and the performers must let us see and feel these things. But there’s not even soaked clothes or panicked sweat — any of the touches that could make this last-ditch struggle truly visceral and gripping. We get some brief, mimed digging – and we’re done.

On the other hand, to its credit, the WaterTower production does not put the Joads’ Hudson Super Six truck on a turntable, as was done in the original Steppenwolf production. It’s a good idea not to let it spin and fly like a prop out of Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang because here, the WaterTower actors have to put their backs into moving and pushing the ungainly hulk. We see real effort.

It’s taken a long while for The Grapes of Wrath to trek into a Dallas-area theater. It’s a huge undertaking, and kudos to WaterTower for putting nearly 30 local actors onstage, plus four musicians — something, it’s worth noting, that the Dallas Theater Center hasn’t done, even with its large-scale musical productions. And for all the novel’s serious flaws, The Grapes of Wrath can still haunt us with an image of our nation nearly coming apart at the seams. And we, the people, struggling just to hang on.