‘There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do’ – John Steinbeck.
This tagline from the New Theatre’s current production of The Grapes of Wrath is mildly reminiscent of a line from The History Boys – when rugby boofhead Rudge exclaims ‘How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another’. Each maxim (despite how crudely phrased) reinforces the idea that actions and events in our lives only resonate and take on meaning when we (or someone else) ascribes meaning or probity to them.
In any case, when men and women flee their homes to find a new life in another state, as they did in John Steinbeck’s story, morality and virtue become contentious issues as the desperate families had nothing much but their integrity and were shocked when they found the ranch bosses in California to be in possession of very slippery ethics. So much for the American dream.
This Steinbeck story is in very capable hands with director Louise Fischer and the twenty-strong cast include an ensemble who both act and sing their way through this play. Strong performances from the cast enthralled audiences, with several of the ensemble picking up instruments and providing musical interludes.
Matthew Abotomey plays Tom Joad, the second son and unofficial leader of the family during their Depression-Era trek. Abotomey has more than enough self-assurance to play the hot-headed Tom, who has just been released from prison. His segue from not-quite Prodigal Son to expedition leader is brief but seamless, in spite of the initial and widespread belief that he is an escapee. Abotomey expresses great exasperated patience with Tom’s extended family and former neighbours to assure them that he has been released and is not a fugitive from justice.
Assisting and providing emotional support is Rowena McNicol as Ma Joad, who has had a difficult road with one family member after another dropping out (or just dropping) – causing her to make impassioned appeals as she tries to rally them time after time. McNicol perfectly personifies the frustrated cheerleader that Ma Joad becomes trying to keep the families’ hopes up. The large cast that made up the family were all impressive in their respective roles, all sticking faithfully to their American accents with apparent ease, not a weak link among them.
The set included a ramshackle vehicle transporting the family from Oklahoma to a new life in the orange groves of California, which veered dangerously close to ridiculous, it briefly resembled the style of the comically engineered Beverly Hillbillies. Fortunately set design dismantled the Joad’s transport to reflect the scenery and camps on the journey through the mid-west, this exercise helped avoid inducing comic over-tones, which could have sunk the whole production.
A problem with this production that does allow the water onboard is the adaptation by Frank Galati. Steinbeck’s novel is a densely layered parable that draws heavily on Christian imagery to address inequality and social injustice which is why the book won a Pulitzer and is still read in high schools and university in the US.
It is a cautionary tale that has not been heeded though, as the disparity between the wealthy and the poor in the US (and a host of other western countries) is not abating, nor is the orgy of consumerism, which was anathema to Steinbeck’s socialist conscience . The story as told ultimately lacks the social morals of the original novel and seems much more like one of Rudge’s history lessons, just ’one fucking thing after another’.
The Grapes of Wrath is on at the New Theatre until 7 September, for more information and tickets see: https://newtheatre.org.au/the-grapes-of-wrath/
Director: Louise Fischer
Featuring: Matthew Abotomey, Peter David Allison, William Baltyn, James Bean, Ted Crosby, Shayne de Groot, Simon Emmerson, Angus Evans, Peter Irving Smith, Brittany Johnson, Caroline Levien, Madeline MacRae, Ryan Madden, Kirsty McKenzie, Rowena McNicol, Matthew Raven, Andrew Simpson, Lily Stirling and Loki Texilake.
Above image by Bob Seary