Anyone familiar with Jon Tracy's style might wonder how he'd apply it to Steinbeck, an author whose rich descriptions of Depression-era America don't necessarily lend themselves to beat-box operas or high-concept set pieces. Yet, Tracy's new production of Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath — which runs through February 20 at TheatreFirst — has all of the director's signature flourishes. Although the characters speak a flat, folksy dialect and the basic story line remains intact, it's still a thoroughly modern and thoroughly Tracyian endeavor.
That's obvious from the jump, when the house lights go down and actor Ryan Tasker is spotlit at center stage, quickly switching between two hats. It turns out the hats actually represent two characters — straw for Pa Joad, floppy for Uncle John. A film of dust gathers behind him, forming a halo in the darkness. Then the lights go up, actor Michael Barrett Austin picks up a guitar, and the whole ensemble sings a version of Radiohead's "Karma Police." Somehow the lyrics — which are about sin and retribution — befit a play that starts off with an ex-con meeting a retired preacher.
And that's our introduction to the two most flawed and tragic characters, Jim Casy (Austin) and Tom Joad (Alex Hersler). Tom is fresh out of jail for a manslaughter conviction; Casy is reassessing his faith. The two meet by chance, and Tom invites Casy to accompany the Joad family on a trip out west along Route 66, presumably to find a more prosperous life in California. Casy makes the thirteenth passenger in the Joads' rickety jalopy, which probably fits about half as many people comfortably. In this play it's actually a bedframe with a steering wheel and chairs piled inside. The actors make tsk-tsk-tsking sounds to imitate the sputter of an old, dying motor, as they put-put-putter down the road.
Thus, Tracy consigned himself with representing an epic cross-country journey on a small stage. He does it in beautiful, simplified shorthand, borrowing from the same bag of tricks he used for Of the Earth, which closed at Ashby Stage the same weekend that Grapes of Wrath opened. Earth featured such innovations as a low-tech Cyclops, represented by a giant lightbulb, and drumsticks that doubled as oars and swords. Similarly, the bedframe in Wrath has many different incarnations. It's a doorway, a truck, part of a giant junkyard where the Joads set up camp, and, at various points, a symbol of desperation and decrepitude. Actors light a fire by sticking a flashlight inside an old tire. The Joads' pregnant daughter, Rose of Sharon (Kelly Strickland), wears a toy house strapped to her belt buckle, to stand for her unborn child — and with it, the dream of a better life. In the second half, open umbrellas represent individual campsites. They also create the right environment for Strickland's quiet reprise of the famous Rihanna song "Umbrella."
Perhaps the most prominent set piece is a large patch of dirt, conceived by set designer Martin Flynn. It's obviously watered before the show, probably for practical reasons — you can't have actors tramping up clouds of dust with each scene change. But the wet-soil smell also adds something wonderfully elemental. It percolates in the air, conveying a sensory history of Okies traveling west along the backcountry roads. The smell is strongest when Rose of Sharon yanks a primrose from one corner of the stage, to show the Joad family being uprooted.
The primrose is pure Tracy, as is the play's heavily pop-driven soundtrack. The director borrows hits from Kanye West, The White Stripes, and The Beach Boys, in addition to old blues numbers and spirituals. ("Wade in the Water" comes in, appropriately, around the time they reach the Colorado River.) And, of course, Tracy can't resist having the actors beatbox or bang on crates with drumsticks, which is something he tries to incorporate in all of his plays, whenever possible. Yet, despite all the post-modern symbolism and the nods to hip-hop, this Grapes of Wrath retains the earthy, visceral feel of its source material.
There are, indeed, rich chunks of Steinbeckian prose thrown in hither and thither, and they make up for whatever was elided when playwright Frank Galati adapted the novel for stage. "I had little hunks of Jesus coming out my mouth," Casy tells Tom in the beginning, explaining why he retired from the evangelist life. Characters rhapsodize about the California dream, a thing they equate with grapevines, moving pictures, and electric irons. Ma Joad (Danielle Levin) speaks in proverbs, insisting that "bearin' and dyin' is two pieces of the same thing." Roy Landaverde devolves into caricature playing the foul-mouthed Grandpa Joad, but his fantasy descriptions of grapes are so ripe and fertile, they verge on being sexual.
Yet, the most resonant line in this play comes from Tom Joad, who realizes, too late, that has family has come out west only to find poverty, oppression, execrable labor conditions, and fallow land. "This here's the bones of a country," he says, after they pass the Colorado River. As time grinds on and characters die, that metaphor begins to ring true.