The Hobbit of social realism, John Steinbecks epic novel The Grapes of Wrath veers in and out of favor with the political season. At the moment its more or less in, thanks to this years Steinbeck centenary and the books familiar evocation of besieged immigrants, homelessness and American xenophobia. Frank Galatis 1989 stage adaptation is a solid work of storytelling that touches all the plot bases while not getting stuck on the kind of details that could derail this fable about an Oklahoma familys escape from the dust bowl to California. When eldest son Tom Joad (Robert Gantzos) returns home from prison, he finds his family and their way of life literally blown away by windstorms and the Great Depression. He and an itinerant ex-preacher named Casy (John Marzilli) catch up with Ma and Pa Joad (Crystal Jackson and Larry Lederman) and the rest of the clan just as they are about to head west in their jalopy truck. If youve read the book or seen John Fords film, you know the rest: the death of the grandparents, that dip in the Colorado River, the proud Joads being bullied by labor contractors, and Toms eventual flight into the fugitive wilderness.
Galatis version cleaves more tightly than the film to Steinbecks unsparing vision of an Okie diaspora in which families are torn apart by economic pressures. Theres no feel-good ending with Ma staring out at the California horizon and making a speech about the Joads and other Okies being the People. Instead, the play concludes in a desolate boxcar jungle as a deluge threatens to sweep away what little the Joads have. Worse, daughter Rose of Sharon (Kelly Ann Ford), abandoned by her layabout husband, Connie (Brent McEwan), gives birth to a dead baby. The final scene, in which she revives a starving man with her breast milk, is at once pathetic, hopeful and ultimately ambiguous.
Given the familiarity of Steinbecks story and the narcotizing spell (or torpor) that literal translations tend to cast on their audiences, Galati or another adapter might have considered transforming the thick novels words into movement and gesture through dance or even opera. Nevertheless, his play works well enough, and director Claudia Jaffee knows that its secret of success is momentum. Jaffee maintains an unbroken rhythm by ensuring that her fine ensemble and its strange hulk of a truck are always wheeling about the stage, accompanied by a trio of musicians. This West Coast Ensemble show is given an authentically period appearance thanks to Evan A. Bartolettis spare but suggestive set design and Diana Edens grease-stained costuming.
As in any Grapes of Wrath production, the actor playing Tom is pivotal; Gantzos definitely looks the part, but theres a certain hesitancy in his bearing, and it takes the whole show for him to really grow on us, although Jackson and Marzilli are superb as Ma and Casy, respectively. If The Grapes of Wraths respectability comes and goes, on a visceral, non-literary level, Steinbecks novel has seeped into the core of the national consciousness, and this production is a forceful and even courageous reminder of this fact.
Give her credit: Playwright Odalys Nanin briskly re-creates onstage all the petty torments and idiosyncrasies that may flavor a relationship between two Latina lovers, and, as an actor, she has no qualms about flashing a bit of mammary to drive home a point. But if the flesh is willing here, the spirit of this two-hander, co-written with Marie Barrientos, is decidedly elusive -- after leaving the Victory Theater, I had no idea what I had just seen.
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A necklace of flashbacks, co-dependency jokes and shtick, Love Struck opens during Los Angeles 1992 riots as Laura (Nanin) and Rachel (Terri Lyn Rain) pull themselves out of bed (theyll do this a lot during the next 75 minutes) to attend a party thrown in their honor. L.A.s civic trauma is dropped, never to re-appear, and the pair are next seen addressing partygoers (us) and re-enacting moments from their courtship. Yet even after the party, the play relies on direct audience address as Laura and Rachel continue to play back scenes from their affair, including one in which they act out an imaginary episode of I Love Lucy.
Its an artifice that makes us wish someone would put that fourth wall back up, and quick. The main problem is that the womens commonplace spats make us suspect that the script is really a stage transcription of the journals of authors who confuse the prosaic jealousies and insecurities of monogamy with dramatic conflict. There are also unnecessary glitches under Nanins own direction: When her character mentions that purple is her favorite color, were suddenly aware that its also the one color we never see onstage, much less on Laura. To be sure, Nanin and Rain are energetic performers, and the shows jokes about Melissa Etheridge and lesbian bed-death syndrome go over well with its appreciative audience. But the evening, presented by a company called Women Advancing Culture History and Art, hardly lives up to the groups high-flown name.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH | Adapted from John Steinbecks novel by FRANK GALATI | At WEST COAST ENSEMBLE, 522 N. La Brea Ave. | Through November 17
LOVE STRUCK | By MARIE BARRIENTOS & ODALYS NANIN At the VICTORY THEATER, 3326 Victory Blvd., Burbank | Through October 27