“The Grapes of Wrath” breathes life into Steinbeck’s classic drama

Geneseo students and faculty have collaborated since September to bring John Steinbeck's American classic The Grapes of Wrath to life on stage, and on Wednesday Nov. 9 the play began its run in the Alice Austin Theatre.

The production blends a broad range of talent including actors, singers and dancers directed by theatre professor Randy Kaplan. Frank Galati adapted the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a three-hour performance that captures the essence of Steinbeck's passionate vision.

The drama begins with Tom Joad (senior Russell Allen) making his way back home after spending years in prison for killing a man in a fight. His home, however, is not the same one he left behind. It is the era of the Dust Bowl and the banks and government are forcing families in Oklahoma out of their homes.

Ma, the epitome of a matriarch, leads the Joad family. Senior Lauren Scheibly played Ma with pure heart and fully immersed herself in the character both physically and mentally. The rest of the family provided a solid frame for the story, and each actor in the Joad clan acted with the incredible talent and maturity required by the complex subject matter. The audience joins the family on every step of the way on their journey to California.

The most unique thing about this production is its sheer size. The entire cast is made up of about 30 students. Junior Matthew Little, who plays Uncle John, expressed the sense of family between the actors in the production. "At first I thought it would be difficult working with such a large ensemble. The names alone were a lot to remember. But after a while we all came together and it really was a family," he said.

The feeling of family resonated strongly on stage as well. As the characters dealt with hardships, their strong chemistry with one another intensified their performances.

Yet another distinctive aspect of this production is the vast quantity of artistic mediums used. An off-stage women's choir singing spirituals immerses the audience in the time period. In the second act, a vibrant square dancing number lightens the mood. This production demonstrates that one need not put on a musical to incorporate all aspects of theater.

Despite the occasional relief of music and dancing, "The Grapes of Wrath" deals with extremely heavy subject matter. Seventh-grader Hunter Radesi, portraying young Winfield Joad, was one of many actors who experienced the challenge of this show. "I got to experience a lot of new emotions. Having to portray the death of family was really challenging," he said.

Death isn't the only challenge for the actors, however. Many of them played multiple parts throughout the show. Junior Jonathan Mushock plays eldest Joad brother Noah, frustrated worker Floyd Knowles and a boy supporting his dying father. "This show was a new challenge for me as an actor. I have to portray different faces and transition into many different emotions. It was really a great experience to be part of," said Mushock.

It is truly remarkable how timeless the story of The Grapes of Wrath really is. In our current world we are dealing with economic struggles, income inequality and political unrest that directly parallel those hardships of Steinbeck's fictional vision of the time of the Great Depression.

"In a modern sense, this show tells a message of what could happen to our country yet again. It's what could be," said Little.

"The Grapes of Wrath" runs from Nov. 9 – 13 in the Alice Austin Theatre. Tickets can be purchased for $8 at the Brodie Box Office.