1930s America in all its vastness is brought to life in this excellent adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, what seemed like the whole of Oklahoma upped-sticks and moved on. Stuck in a cycle of failing cash-crops and mounting debts, whole communities had their lands repossessed when the banks demanded repayment. The great hope lay west toward the promised land of California where the vast fruit meadows lay and jobs would be plentiful and a better life was assured.
The Grapes of Wrath follows a single family, the Joads, on their quest westwards. On a single truck, what starts as a gang of thirteen cross two thousand miles of mountain and desert for the promise of work and a decent place to live. Upon arrival, California is anything but the paradise that the labour notices had described. Although affluent and beautiful, there was no place for the migrant worker. Pushed into industrial disputes, the once-proud, land-owning, eminently respectable Joads are driven from their dignified lifestyle into vagrancy and law-breaking.
Yet through all of this, there is no question of their true dignity. Amidst poverty, hunger, persecution and hatred, the Joads, who represent not only the “Okies” who made it to California, but migrant workers the world over, keep their heads held high and never miss an opportunity to do kindness to a stranger. This was the reason for The Grapes of Wrath. Written by a middle-class writer to a middle-class audience, it redressed the balance of opinion of a nation that had demonised a whole people group.
This production does great justice to Steinbeck’s work. A cast of twenty and a set which changes atmosphere as the story moves across America give a feel of a family and a nation on the move. The performances of Tom [Damian O’Hare] and Ma Joad Sorcha Cusack are worthy of particular note. Their characters long to be devoted to the family and to one another, but feeling the constant pull of their duty to the greater good, they are continually self-denying.
This is a must see: there are few laughs and strangely for the subject matter, it is not a tear-jerker. However, watching this play is a humbling experience because it leaves the audience wondering how they would fare if they had a real-life role to play in this fictional, but too-true story. This is what Steinbeck intended.
- Rebecca Hale