- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 15, 2003

You can empathize with the Joad family as they rattle along Route 66 in their jalopy on a spirit-busting 2,000-mile journey to a better life in California.

They are hot, tired, dirty and broke — victims of the Depression and the Dust Bowl.

In fact, Ford’s Theatre’s production of “The Grapes of Wrath” (done to a sun-baked fare-thee-well by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company on Broadway nearly a decade ago) is so arduous that at times you feel as though you, too, are stuffed aboard the Joads’ overburdened truck — perched directly over the worn-down springs.

The production, directed by David Cromer from Frank Galati’s graceful adaptation, has the noblest of intentions. It is a tribute to the late Frankie Hewitt, Ford’s tireless executive producer for decades. In the late 1930s, Miss Hewitt lived in a one-room shack in Oklahoma and, like the Joads, traveled to California with her family and worked as a migrant laborer picking grapes in Napa Valley.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is Miss Hewitt’s story as well as the story of millions of Americans who left their homesteads for the promise of a life of sunshine, steady work and abundance only to find hardship, mistreatment and more poverty. If only this revival held more of the hard beauty of the Steppenwolf production, it would be a glorious homage to Miss Hewitt’s tenacity and spirit.

Despite a transcendent performance by Annabel Armour as Ma Joad, much of “The Grapes” is rough going. The first act, depicting the Joads’ wrenching circumstances in Oklahoma before they suffer the really bad times in California, moves about as compellingly as a dust mote. The energy level picks up once the Joads finally get on the road and encounter a character called A Man Going Back (Stephen Patrick Martin), who tells of his dark experience out West so feverishly it gives you goose bumps.

This energy surge is sustained by the character of Jim Casy (the excellent Jeffrey Hutchinson), a disgraced preacher who has gone into the wilderness like John the Baptist to question his faith and whether virtue and sin exist. Casy is befriended by Tom Joad (Craig Walker) and taken along to California, where he serves as the irascible conscience of the piece. His quasi-humorous take on his downfall, as well as his insistence on questioning everything rather than taking suffering like a dumb animal, makes him one of the play’s few full-bodied characters.

The other is Ma Joad, played with a palpable bone-deep weariness by Miss Armour. Her Ma Joad is frugal with the outward affection you might expect from a mother — in fact, the only time you see her embrace anyone is at the end, when she bestows on son Tom a benedictory goodbye kiss on the forehead. Still, her rock-steady faith that the only thing she and her family can do is keep moving on has the force of a mighty river.

Ma Joad is a force of nature, and you can see stirrings of this humble magic in her daughter, Rose of Sharon (Susan Bennett), who goes from starry-eyed young bride to toughened survivor in the course of the play. You wish some of this grit had rubbed off on the other kin, especially Tom, the central character. As played by Mr. Walker, Tom is sulky, overgrown and immature, with a hair-trigger temper and a mean streak.

Without a strong Tom Joad, “The Grapes of Wrath” becomes not a young man’s journey from undisciplined ruffian to champion of workers’ rights, but a severely episodic look at suffering.

Everyone is miserable at the beginning and miserable at the end. It just keeps getting worse and worse until you begin to envy those who died along the way.

The evocative, dust-colored light-and-silhouette shading of “Grapes” puts you in mind of a Thomas Hart Benton painting — and the revolving stage skillfully conveys both a long trek and the endless cycle of poverty. Pleasing interludes are provided by an ensemble of singers and musicians performing folk songs and dances of the period.

In this revival of “The Grapes of Wrath,” hardships dominate until bad luck and bad timing become the play’s droning message. Ultimately, what is lacking is the sense of unquenchable spirit in these people who left their homes behind for the great unknown.

**

WHAT: “The Grapes of Wrath,” adapted by Frank Galati, based on the novel by John Steinbeck

WHERE: Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW, Washington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 1 p.m. Thursday, 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Through Nov. 15.

TICKETS: $29 to $45

PHONE: 202/347-4833

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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