Life imitates art
Timeless themes bear fruit for modern audiences in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ at A Noise Within
By Sara Cardine 02/28/2013
When California author John Steinbeck sat down in the late 1930s to write “The Grapes of Wrath,” he must have drawn inspiration from what was happening all around him as America gasped for breath amid the Great Depression. At a time when one-quarter of the workforce was unemployed and struggling to survive, families were being uprooted from the lives and livelihoods they had known for generations.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, published in 1939, chronicles the story of the Joads, a family of Okies forced to flee the ravages of Dust Bowl and endure a harrowing cross-country journey westward in the hope for something better. Instead, they arrive to find a meager existence harvesting California fruit fields awaits them.
Today, nearly 75 years later, Americans recovering from the Great Recession once again struggle to find and keep jobs, wondering when, if ever, their economic vitality will return. Meanwhile, debates over climate change, immigration and income inequality and their impact on future generations rage hotly as ever.
In this context, “The Grapes of Wrath” retains an uncanny relevance to modern American audiences. But if we are doomed to repeat the worst parts of our history, then perhaps Steinbeck’s portrayal of human endurance and his utter belief in the thin, bare thread of hope that binds us all hints at a promise of personal freedom on the horizon.
These themes, and more, take a local spotlight, as Pasadena’s A Noise Within presents a Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath,” running now through May 11.
Directed by Michael Michetti, co-artistic director at Theatre @ Boston Court who is freelancing his talents for this production, this adaptation comes from Frank Galati of the Steppenwolf Theatre Co. It weaves traditional narrative elements with Dust Bowl-era songs and period hymns to create a moving theatrical experience that is at once both honest and uplifting.
“This story is still so relevant in so many ways,” Michetti said in an interview with the Pasadena Weekly. “It remains a story about going on, about the willpower to move forward. That aspect of the human spirit is something we continue to need to have reminders of.”
This is not Michetti’s first time helming for A Noise Within — he previously directed four productions, including “Hamlet” and Molière’s “Don Juan” — though he admits he worked with ANW producing artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott for four years to bring this particular script to the stage.
“When I first began pitching it, we were going into a period of economic difficulty,” he said. “There are so many ways in which I hope the audience sees the parallels of things we’re still going through as a country.”
Some of the novel’s most memorable moments are retained, including the striking final scene between a still-grieving Rose of Sharon and an emaciated stranger. Another unforgettable moment, Michetti recalled, is a scene between Tom and Ma Joad in which Tom throws in his lot with all humanity, telling Ma if she looks she will find him in every human action. He says, “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.”
The beauty and grace of the characters and Steinbeck’s message of human connection was something Michetti took care to preserve in his direction.
“We are all part of the human spirit, and if we work together we’re more powerful,” he explained. “I hope [audiences] see the beautiful life lessons in this and go away thinking about how we might apply this.”
“The Grapes of Wrath” runs now through May 11 at A Noise Within Theatre, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets cost $40 to $52, with student and group discounts available. For more information, including show times, call (626) 356-3100 or visit anoisewithin.org.