Arthur Clifford in The Grapes of Wrath (Ryan Fortney)
Published in 1939 and set during the Great Depression, the relevance of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has not wavered. In fact, the production currently onstage at the Arts Asylum started as a pre-pandemic project for creative directors Elaine Clifford and Ryan Fortney, and the silver lining of that COVID-forced delay is that this story about corporate greed, exploitation of workers, and the importance of community, is timelier than ever in 2023, the year of a massive labor movement resurgence seen across the U.S.
Frank Galati’s stage adaptation follows the same story as Steinbeck’s novel. Tom Joad (Robert Coppage III), paroled from prison after killing a man in self-defense, reunites with his family just as they’re leaving their home in Oklahoma to seek farming work in California. Joined by a former preacher (Matthew Emmerick) on a journey for an understanding of the universe he couldn’t find in the Bible, the Joad family heads west, only to find they are far from the only ones in desperate search of work. And when they get to California, there is no shortage of people and institutions eager to exploit and punish that mass desperation—and plenty of others hiding their heads in the sand, denying the harsh reality taking over the world around them.
The production at Arts Asylum, directed deftly by Fortney, keeps things simple and uses that bare-bones aesthetic to its advantage. The entirety of the set is a collection of chairs, stools, and crates lining the back wall, and the constant hauling and rearranging of the pieces by the actors gives the movement a hard-working, bootstrapping energy. Matt Benes’ lighting (aided by Jeff Eubank’s subtle sound design) works beautifully to segment the stage into smaller, contained scenes that draw us in close. Erin Viets’ excellent fight choreography makes the violence of this world feel close and intimate, and a sprinkling of delightful anachronistic songs sung by the cast do the same with its joy. A gentle occasional narration provided by Arthur Clifford (who also fills in a number of offbeat character roles) guides the whole project with a tender hand.
This play, like Steinbeck’s novel, is undeniably political—a biting critique of capitalism’s disregard for humanity. But it is also about the importance of community. From families to labor unions, the only way through the darkness is to rely on each other. This message carries through with force, largely thanks to the charisma of the cast, and their intense chemistry with one another.
“The Grapes of Wrath” runs through November 19 at the Arts Asylum, 824 E. Meyer Blvd. For more information, visit www.theartsasylum.org.