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STAGE REVIEW

This 'Grapes of Wrath' needs some get-up-and-go

Jonathan Popp (as Tom Joad, left) and Derek Stone-Nelson (Jim Casey) in "The Grapes of Wrath" at Stoneham Theatre. (Paul Lyden)

STONEHAM -- The emotional toll of John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath" weighs heavily on a reader. In Frank Galati's Tony Award-winning stage adaptation, Steinbeck's desperate characters cope with life's hardships with a sensitivity and deep humanity that are touching.

But in the new production at Stoneham Theatre, director Weylin Symes mutes the story's power and the characters' struggle by choosing a neutral tone and a plodding pace. Perhaps the idea was to suggest the black-and-white photographic feel of the 1930s, when the story takes place, but the result is a one-note production that diminishes the tragedy and drains the emotion.

"The Grapes of Wrath" chronicles the journey of the Joads, one family among thousands of Okies displaced from their land when drought and the Great Depression destroy their incomes and force them out of their homes. California, with its bountiful harvests and balmy weather, becomes the promised land, and many families head out on the 2,000-mile journey with little more than the clothes on their backs. Stops in "Hoovervilles," camping in irrigation ditches, death and desertion do not prepare the Okies for the deprivation in California, where fear and greed rule, the sheer number of new arrivals push down the pay to nearly nothing, and violence ensues when workers talk of organizing.

Galati's adaptation uses Steinbeck's poetic descriptions to create transitions between scenes, and his ability to zoom in on the novel's essential dramatic moments highlights the love, loyalty, perseverance, and frustration of characters trying to maintain their dignity. The Joads start their journey with three generations of family members and a lapsed preacher, but find themselves scattered and torn apart by their experiences. Their lives are filled with uncertainty, and yet the play ends with a heart-wrenching reaffirmation of hope.

Although both Tom Joad (Jonathan Popp ) and Ma Joad (Susan Bigger ) are central to the tale, Symes can't seem to help these actors find their characters or their place in the drama. With a cast of 25, Symes is also dealing with performers who have various levels of stage experience. Darius Omar Williams, Ed Peed, and Doug Griffin stand out for their efforts to infuse their characters with some much-needed passion, but their portrayals tend to point out the limitations of others who are not up to the task.

Despite the efforts of lighting designer Christopher Ostrom, Gianni Downs's bare set looks bland when it should be bleak, and the Joads' car, such an important symbol, looks utterly amateurish. Pieces of plywood slapped together do not resemble the iconographic American pickup truck that they patch and repair until it limps across the California border. The most colorful elements in this production are the musical interludes, led by music director and banjo player Jeff Warner. But when the singers drift painfully off key during the plaintive ballad "Farther Along," you may begin to feel everyone is going through the motions. The production's monochromatic look and feel defeats the intent of both the novel and the adaptation, leaving us unaffected by what should be a devastating tale.

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