An epic American story of hardship and survival comes to the stage at the University of Rochester as the International Theatre Program presents The Grapes of Wrath beginning Thursday, April 19.
John Steinbeck's landmark novel about Oklahoma farmers forced to become migrant workers in California won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Henry Fonda that same year. In 1988 Frank Galati adapted the work for the stage for his fellow actors in Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Galati's The Grapes of Wrath was produced at the Royal National Theatre of London in 1989 and opened on Broadway the following year, earning two Tony Awards, and has grown in fame in the ensuing decade.
The play is scheduled to run in Todd Theater on the River Campus at 8 p.m. on April 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28, and May 3, 4, 5, and 6; and at 2 p.m. on April 22 and 29 and May 5 and 6.
The University's production of The Grapes of Wrath is the latest in a list of original stage adaptations of major books, which have included Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and, most recently, the ancient Greek epic The Iliad, notes Mervyn Willis, artistic director of the International Theatre Program and director for the Rochester production.
At the same time, he explains, the play provides an opportunity for the theater program to present an American classic as part of a repertoire that has also featured works from other cultures and time periods, included English Restoration comedy and plays by Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, and Shakespeare.
Still, "The Depression era is, in many ways, an unknown period to the student actors, as distant as 19th century England," says Willis. To prepare for the play, they were required to read Steinbeck's novel as well as historical accounts of the Depression, attend a lecture about The Grapes of Wrath, and view East of Eden, the 1955 James Dean film of another Steinbeck novel. Pictures of the Dust Bowl surround the actors during rehearsals, enhancing the atmosphere of poverty, prejudice, and despair that face the main characters, the Joad family.
To meet the challenges of designing a set for the play, which calls for more than two dozen cast members, Willis will be using the entire 80-foot length of Todd Theater as the stage. But to mirror the poverty of the characters, the set will have a minimum amount of props. Instead, like the Joads who packed all their worldly possessions into their truck, the actors will assemble and reassemble scenes from a few props. In addition, period clothes, stressed to look weathered and worn, will be used for the costumes.
The set and costume design for The Grapes of Wrath are by Nikita Tkachuk, who has designed productions both in Russia and in the United States. Lighting design is by Chris Brown, whose work has been seen on stages in Boston, New York City, and Providence. Jason McCool, an Eastman School of Music graduate who has toured with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, is creating the original music and sound design.
Tickets for The Grapes of Wrath are $8 for the general public and $7 for senior citizens. They can be purchased at the box office, reserved online at www.rochester.edu/College/ENG/theatre, or by calling 275-4088.