Playwright: Frank Galati after the novel by John Steinbeck. At: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 773-283-7071 or TheGiftTheatre.org; $25-$35. Runs through: Aug. 4
Plenty of eyebrows were raised when The Gift Theatre announced it was producing The Grapes of Wrath. How in the world could Frank Galati's Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's sprawling novel conceivably fit into The Gift Theatre's bowling alley-sized space?
Actually, this epic of impoverished Great Depression "Okies" fleeing the Dust Bowl satisfyingly plays out with heart-breaking intimacy and immediacy at The Gift Theatre. And that's thanks to director Erica Weiss, her large ensemble and her clever design team who ingeniously fit in all the drama with flat-pack precision.
With a Thomas Hart Benton-inspired back wall painting to suggest the vast expanse of America, set designer Courtney O'Neill also uses the cramped space to her advantage as the multi-talented actor/musicians squeeze into the two-level playing space. That sense of claustrophobia and the desire to break free toward the horizon works its way into the ensemble's many powerful performances.
The Gift's Grapes of Wrath also feels startlingly contemporary for a number of reasons. In light of headlines about Syrian and African refugees risking everything, Steinbeck's personalized exploration of the exploited and tragic Joad family takes on an extra gut-punching significanceespecially since a similar situation happened before in our own country.
Producing The Grapes of Wrath now also taps into this election cycle's anger on both ends of the political spectrum. As onlookers demonize the Joads' ramshackle migrant appearance, many members of the family becomes politicized when they realize just what a raw deal they're getting from their wealthy employers.
Weiss also ratchets up these feelings by utilizing color-blind casting to make the Joads into an interracial family. So when Namir Smallwood as Tom Joad powerfully lays into system-wide injustices against the poor and oppressed, The Grapes of Wrath becomes less of a period piece and more of contemporary commentary.
Equally matching Smallwood's noble and strong turn as Tom Joad is Jerre Dye, as the former preacher-turned small-time philosopher Jim Casey. These two morally anchor the production and offer strong support for their fellow actors.
I do have some quibbles. One is Weiss' decision to make the "tomcatting" brother Al Joad ( Lane Flores ) into a closet gay. The text supports this intriguing interpretation early on, but not as convincingly by the end. Also, some might wish Kona N. Burks' take on the matriarch Ma Joad was not so emotionally bottled up ( although others will argue that Burks' halting interpretation is in the text ).
But overall, there's no denying what a tremendous dramatic achievement The Grapes of Wrath is for the ever-plucky Gift Theatre. Please forgive this crude analogy of size not mattering, because the artists at The Gift truly know how to work best with what they've got.