Sunday, October 31, 1999

'Grapes of Wrath' showcases Conservatory's growth


THEATER REVIEW

BY JACKIE DEMALINE
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Fire, flood and famine aren't the half of it in John Steinbeck's biblically proportioned The Grapes of Wrath. The classic Depression-era novel of disenfranchised Americans gets an epic-sized transfer to the Patricia Corbett Theater stage through today at University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music.

        The sophomore through senior student body of the acting program, 30 strong, are onstage to enact the trials of the Joads, who leave their drought-ridden Oklahoma farm in 1938 to migrate to California and a better life.

        This is arguably the drama department's most ambitious undertaking ever, and it's a showcase for how far it has come in the past five years.

        The greatest credit for Grapes goes to director Michael Burnham, who never loses the intimate emotional threads in his huge canvas. This show is so big that audience members will be better served sitting farther from the stage. You miss some of the scope close up.

        For all that it is about suffering and sacrifice, courage and fear, love of the land, and justice vs. law, Grapes is most primarily about family.

        The play opens as Tom Joad (Dominic Bogart is completely compelling) comes home, paroled from prison, to find the land is dust and the family farm abandoned.

        He catches up with the family, and they load up the truck, all 12 of them plus a former minister (Randall Sullivan in a stand-out performance) and take to the road, one of 50,000 vehicles heading west looking for work, food, shelter, a future.

        The script, adapted by Frank Gala ti, and Mr. Burnham never let us forget that this is more than one family's story. It's also a shameful episode in American history, a tale of endless suffering, starvation, displacement and lost family ties.

        The Joads cross Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, the Colorado River and the desert on their way to the land of plenty, although it's never plenty for them. They meet America at gas stations, migrant worker camps, in box cars and on strike.

        It's all played out on student Corey Shipler's set, an effective series of plank ramps and playing levels. Set pieces — a gate, a door, a tree, brought on as needed to set scenes.

        Grapes captures you for its entire three-hour length, although on the rare occasions that the strongest players are off stage, it loses its spellbinding quality, but never its urgency. (That includes sophomore Nathan Thomas in a variety of roles, most notably Grampa Joad.)

        Almost the entire design crew are students, and there's strong work from costumer Orene Colcord (although I question the skirt length on the farm boss in the second act), lighting designer Bee Bee Lee and sound designer Sally Vollner.

        This Grapes has lots of musical interludes — folk songs, ballads, hymns. I'll quibble with the show's closer, a full ensemble version of the out-of-period Christmas in Washington, which beats the show's messages home a little more.

        We've gotten the point. Worse, it's like getting hit with a two-by-four that shakes loose the strong imagery of Mr. Galati's intended ending.

        The Grapes of Wrath, 2:30 p.m. today, Patricia Corbett Theater, UC. Tickets $22. 556-4183.

       



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