CT Rep's Respectable 'Grapes Of Wrath' Will Have You Toe-Tapping

Theater bookworms unite! In recent months, Connecticut theaters have cracked the spines of such notable works as “Oliver Twist,” “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “Don Quixote” and the ever-influential “Peter Pan.”

Now UConn’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre has dusted off the fiercely respectful Frank Galati stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Presented at the school’s large Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre proscenium stage with a cast of 28, the show strives to match the breadth and scope of the novel, in which a poverty-stricken family of 1930s Dust Bowl “Okies” attempt to better themselves by heading west to California, lured by promises of work and better weather.

This sprawling American odyssey is a natural fit for CT Rep, which is always on the lookout for large-cast productions that touch on prevailing social concerns. (Last year, for example, there was “Our Country’s Good,” with its themes of incarceration and colonialism.) UConn has done “The Grapes of Wrath” once before, during the 1995-96 season.

Director Gary English — who founded CT Rep in 1993, served as its artistic director until 2008, and continues to teach at UConn today — revisits “The Grapes of Wrath” with a contemporary focus. The show is firmly set in the 1930s, with a big clunking old roadster for the Joad family to ride in, period costumes and some fashionable men’s hats. But the commendable multicultural casting, with African-American performers prominent in the family mix and a Peruvian student, Mauricio Miranda, starring as Tom Joad, gives the production a universal feel that evokes the struggles of immigrant workers in our own time.

One problem facing “The Grapes of Wrath” is the strained credulity of having young, fresh-faced actors playing beaten-down workers representing multiple generations. Some of the older characters, such as Granma (Johanna Leister) and Grampa (Dale AJ Rose) are wisely cast with actors of appropriate age. The other Actors Equity professionals hired for this production are Ken O’Brien as a rather whiny Pa Joad and Joe Jung, who brings folksy wisdom as the ex-preacher Jim Casey and doubles as the show’s music director. There are also a couple of real kids handling the child roles. But in between, there are a lot of boy-faced cops and mothers who appear to be the same age as their grown children.

The production works best when the ensemble is given something grand and physical to do, like a barn dance or a picket-line riot. The script’s many pensive moments, in which characters contemplate a bleak future, are less confidently played.

Several of the actors double as musicians in the onstage folk band. It’s a rowdy ensemble of guitar, fiddle, washtub bass, banjo, ukulele, autoharp and kazoo. At another point in the show, a musical saw is deftly bowed. Whenever the script drags due to portentous pauses or unnecessary repetitions of main themes, you can rest assured that some musicians will be whirling in at any moment to pick up the pace again.

“The Grapes of Wrath” takes its time, building images of gravitas and world-weariness over the span of two and a half hours. There are lots of tableaux and vignettes, frozen frames reminiscent of Depression era photos by Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange. There are many fine, refined, full-bodied acting moments — starting the engine of a rattletrap truck and acting like it has just started rumbling, bolstering a trench with sandbags as floodwaters approach, or just staring longingly at a loved one.

Your appreciation of “The Grapes of Wrath” may ultimately be swayed by whether you’ve read Steinbeck’s novel, whether you’ve been forced to read it for class or found it on your own, and how much appeal you think his work has in the 21st century. There are certainly dramatic cliches here which weren’t cliches yet when Steinbeck (or, in some respects, Galati) was writing. The down-home homilies — “There ain’t no sin, there ain’t no virtue; there’s just stuff people do” can get grating, though occasionally there’s one that sounds fresh and relevant: “Some says they don’t want us to vote.”

“The Grapes of Wrath” can be hamstrung by its own reputation as heavy lit. The CT Rep ensemble is able to overcome a lot of these weighty obstacles and tell a clear story of family struggle with some sharp visuals and even some toe-tapping beats.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH runs through Oct. 14 at Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 2132 Hillside Road, on the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs.$10 to $35. 860-486-2113 and crt.uconn.edu.

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