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Spirit, love, justice, laughter: Abiding power in “The Grapes of Wrath”

Front Row ( L to R) Cameron Cobb, Pam Dougherty, David Coffee, Back Row (L to R) Sonny Franks, Michael Corolla in the CityRep production of THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Photo Provided
Front Row ( L to R) Cameron Cobb, Pam Dougherty, David Coffee, Back Row (L to R) Sonny Franks, Michael Corolla in the CityRep production of THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Photo Provided

by Patrick B. McGuigan



The Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, in its new collaboration with Oklahoma City University, has hit another home run with the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s best known novel. This interpretation of the “Dust Bowl” plight of the hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans who traveled Route 66, west to California in the midst of the Depression, coincides with the 75th anniversary of publication of the book.

Troubling tales of the oft-despised Okies bring into brilliant focus reasons “The Grapes of Wrath” has sustained Steinbeck’s place in the American literary canon for all these years.

Cameron Cobb is superb as Tom Joad, the most forceful personality in a family that loses their farm to foreclosure. David Coffee as Pa, and Pam Dougherty as Ma, are perfectly cast as long-suffering souls seeking a better life in the fields of California, where they hear there are “plenty of jobs” for everyone willing to do honest labor.

On the difficult journey to what they hope is a promised land, Grampa (Michael Jones, top-notch as always) and Granma (Jeanie Cooper Sholer) are frail, awaiting their fate. The rest of the family is Uncle John (Michael Corolla) and Noah (Nick Plasco), Winfield (Carter Haney), Ruthie (Cassie Schafter), Al (Nathan Goodrich) and Rose of Sharon (Kate Robison).

Rose is pregnant, dreaming of better times with Connie Rivers (Matt Redmond), who can’t surrender hopes for farming success.

Scott Hynes portrays a fellow who warns the Joads, and other migrants, that the economic bliss of the west lands is a myth created to assure cheap labor; Mark Johnson is a quiet director of the “Weedpatch” Camp, where the family gets temporary rest (but not good jobs) after they get across the state line.

Rare moments of laughter come from the Mayor of a “Hooverville” (Steve Emerson) where the family stops briefly, and in those repetitive questions to Tom, legitimately paroled at the story’s start but repeatedly asked “did you bust out” of the McAlester penitentiary back home.

In solo guitar and gentle singing, Sonny Franks unobtrusively delivers spiritual classics appropriate to the era — including “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is calling” – as well as a range of Woody Guthrie classics.

As the story’s narrator, Franks drives the tale forward, laying out Steinbeck’s narrative in direct language, with no fluff or fanfare, as adapted by Frank Galati in the 1990s.

A secondary character for most of the story, Rose of Sharon emerges in the end as one many will recognize – a woman who incorporates loss and heartache into loving affirmation of our shared humanity. Robison’s Rose learns that she comes from a line of survivors, people who find ways, as Ma (Dougherty) puts it, of “goin’ on.”

Tom’s last words in the play are a tragic sketch of the deprivation and injustice that accompanied the Great Depression, beautifully delivered by Cobb. A few of Tom’s final words from the original are left out in the version now on the OCU stage, yet the story itself conveys their meaning.

Uttered in the wake of tragedy and as a prelude to the final (and still-shocking) conclusion of both the original novel and the play, Tom’s reflections explain his sadness at leaving, determination to organize to fight back against the wildly harsh conditions he has seen among the migrant workers, and insistent dreams about a more just world, and better lives for those whom he loves.

The majesty of Steinbeck’s prose – and deft adaptation into presentations like this latest collaboration between the professionals of CityRep and the aspiring performers from the university – move us still, to a sense of solidarity with one another. This is not populist pablum, but a challenge to honor and meet the aspirations of those willing to abide by reasonable norms, but pressed down in cycles of economic turmoil and cultural insensitivity.

Tom asks his mother, and us, to tell the family:

“I left in love, in laughter, and in truth. Wherever truth, love and justice abide, I am there in spirit.”

The production opened last weekend at OCU’s Burg Theatre on N. Blackwelder Avenue, to a sold-out house, but tickets remain for the Friday, Oct. 3 and Saturday, Oct 4 evening shows (8 p.m.) and the Saturday, Oct. 4 and Sunday, Oct. 5 matinees at 2 p.m.

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