William Bolz, left, as Jim Casy and Jon Hause as Tom Joad in University Theatre's The Grapes of Wrath.
Director Norma Saldivar makes both odd and interesting choices with the University Theatre production of The Grapes of Wrath. Much of the staging involves stylized tableaus, with actors facing the audience instead of each other, and the effect undermines a show that already struggles to emotionally connect.
John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, set in the dark night of the Great Depression, won the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize for literature. Frank Galati's stage adaptation, brought to life this month at UW Vilas Hall's Hemsley Theatre, won the Tony for Best Play in 1990. The production runs through Oct. 16.
The show opens in the belly of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, where prodigal son Tom Joad (senior Jon Hause, who does a lot of repetitive hat-clenching but gives an overall moving performance) is returning home from a four-year stint in prison. He finds his family has been pushed off its land and is packing the jalopy for a long trek to the land of milk and honey: California. Desperate and hungry, the Joads have been promised pleasant jobs, sunny winters and little white houses amongst the orange trees. What they find is something entirely different.
Steinbeck's story follows the Joads and ex-preacher Jim Casy (William Bolz, in one of the show's most relatable performances) on their journey west, dramatized effectively on Michael R. Maloney's spartan set. Costume designer Gail Brassard has a tougher job dressing 20 or so characters in 1930s rags, and many of the garments are distractingly clean and modern.
Music and sound effects come from ensemble actors, flanking the stage in chairs. The effect is often impressive, but it's never clear if the musicians are part of the show. Sometimes they seem in character; other times they appear bored and distracted, reading their lines from a script.
Musical numbers, which are thankfully few, sound great (led by Morgan Boland as the hand-wringing Rose of Sharon, with both a gorgeous voice and a Hitchcock-worthy scream), but like too many of the play's scenes, these songs fail to develop character or forward the plot, leaving audience members shifting in their seats. Perhaps the most moving performance of the show is Dylan Muzny's heart-wrenching harmonica playing.
The production's exhausting three-hour run time is made longer by a lack of highs and lows; the show hits its climactic hilt early in the evening and never comes back down. David Furumoto's performance as Pa Joad is particularly exhausting, with nearly every line of dialogue shouted from the edge of hysteria. These characters are simple, hard-working people, and like someone laughing too hard at his own joke, the drama loses its resonance when the actors seem too aware of the profoundness of their own dialogue.
Patricia Boyette's nuanced Ma Joad is a welcome relief, and she becomes the play's unexpected emotional center. Whitney Derendinger has far too little stage time as troubled Uncle John, but the moments he has are some of the night's most memorable.
The show's themes are as relevant now as they were in 1939, but they are weakened by an overlong run time and far too much shouting.