I have been fortunate to see a lot of theater in my life, including a decade of Broadway in Manhattan and more recently, years of productions at Asolo Repertory Theatre; but few shows have touched me as deeply and powerfully as Asolo’s masterful production of “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Thankfully, I went into the production with no recollection of the plot, so I was able to go on the journey with the Joads, maintaining a sense of hopefulness for their future. As the play begins, we learn that Tom Joad, played by Christian Conn who also starred in “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” this season, had recently been released from jail and was returning to his family. Doug Jones, his father in both productions, and Peggy Roeder as Ma Joad, who played his housekeeper, in “Philadelphia”, joined Conn again. Although “The Grapes of Wrath” is a much darker story than “Philadelphia,” it was lovely to see the strong familial bond among the Joad family, a stark contrast to the comparatively well-off O’Connell family who nonetheless suffered from a dearth of emotional intimacy.
Watching the family prepare to journey across country, it was easy to forget that they had just lost their family home and were parting with nearly all their earthly possessions. There was a certain palpable joy as this very large family came together to welcome Tom home and to dream about their new life in California with all the fresh fruit they can pick. Grandpa Joad (David S. Howard) imagines soaking himself in a plentiful supply of grapes and provides both the comedic relief, and the first gut punch in the production.
The family is experiencing abject poverty, but Ma Joad willingly permits the family’s beloved preacher, Jim Casy, in a revelatory performance by Andrew Sellon, to join the family on its journey, saying “never heerd tell of no Joads or no Hazletts, neither, ever refusin’ food an’ shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked.” The preacher ends up being a welcome companion for the Joads. Despite the fact that he laments that the spirit is no longer in him, he provides the constancy the family needs to feel that God is on their side.
But the true family guide is the stalwart Ma Joad in a commanding performance by Roeder. No matter how terrible things became during the journey, she carried on knowing that her family needed to eat. When her son Al asks her whether she was scared about the journey, she has one of the best speeches in “Grapes” about how young people have a thousand lives ahead of them but when you are older you just have just one path ahead and you must keep going. And that’s exactly what she does. She keeps her mind focused on keeping the family together no matter what.
Even as the family is knocked and beaten down over and over again, they always seem to rise above the fray, because of their common decency and love for one another. In their final act of loving-kindness the remaining family members find a way to help a stranger they meet in a barn, which harkens back to a famous manger.
It was touching to see the play on the last day of the run. Roeder left the stage in tears, perhaps from the strain and intensity of the role or the emotions of closing the show. Clearly, this production was a monumental experience in the lives of the cast. Once the Joads are a part of you, they are always with you; because their story is our story. As Tom says of his conversations with Casy, “maybe we’ve all just got a little part of one great soul.”
Tomorrow, Michael Donald Edwards, director of the play and Asolo Repertory artistic director along with Frank Galati, Tony-award winning director of the Broadway production of the play, joins a panel to honor the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath called Steinbeck on Stage at the Smithsonian.