Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre

grapes of wrath

Grapes of Wrath

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s brutal production of Grapes of Wrath, adapted from John Steinbeck’s classic novel by Frank Galati, has the visceral power of a Biblical text, with dirt poor migrant workers cast as Israelites, while drought and an uncaring, often hostile, government stand in for the plagues sent by a vengeful God.

The Job-like family at the center of this gut-wrenching epic are the Joads, “Okies” driven from the land by the Dust Bowl and lured westward by unscrupulous labor brokers and heartless farm owners to be held in near slavery on the constant verge of starvation.

Galati’s adaptation (he also directs this season’s Merry Wives of Windsor) and Antoni Cimolino’s sparse but evocative production are both triumphs. And yet it is hard to recommend that you rush to see it. This is one of the most difficult evenings in a theatre you are likely to pass in a good long time. And yet this tale of monumental suffering and the towering nobility of the least of God’s creatures is not just a history lesson. It is very much of the moment.

As I write these lines, Texas is suffering a biblical drought that is decimating its historic cattle culture, the gap between rich and poor is far greater than it was during the Great Depression, official unemployment figures conveniently omit the ever growing number of people who have exhausted their unemployment insurance with no prospect of work in the foreseeable future, while the rights of workers to form unions and bargain with their employers is under attack from the very government that is supposedly protecting their rights. It is hard not to wonder whether this production gives us a glimpse into our future as well as look back at our past.

The enormous cast, often playing multiple roles, is quite simply superlative. Evan Buliung as Tom Joad and Tom McCamus as the former preacher Jim Casey are magnificent. But then so too are Janet Wright as Ma and Chilina Kennedy as Rose of Sharon. And Ian D. Clark as Grampa is a revelation.

This is tough theater to watch but if you can take it (and maybe even if you can’t) it is theater that demands to be seen.

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