Ford’s Theater opens its season with a sensitive, profoundly deliberate production of John Steinbeck’s sweeping Dust Bowl drama. David Cromer’s staging occasionally teeters on the tedious, but it’s rescued by an effective set and impressive performances from this enormous ensemble.
Frank Galati’s 1989 adaptation is used for a big-budget presentation mounted in honor of Ford’s founder, Frankie Hewitt, who died earlier this year. Hewitt was born in Oklahoma to a migrant family that moved to a farm in California, experiencing some of the hardships depicted.
Steinbeck’s themes of survival, perseverance, dignity, etc., are relentlessly driven home by Galati’s accessible script, which follows the luckless Joad family on its disastrous journey. The entire clan and belongings are piled onto a rickety truck that sputters it way aboard a spinning turntable, doubling as perfect metaphor and prominent feature of David Swayze’s bare-bones set. It also sets a four-cylinder pace as the massive story unfolds.
An expert cast delivers all of the play’s intended punches, including some delightful cameo moments. Jeffrey Hutchinson and Craig Walker set the tone in their pivotal roles as the former preacher and returning son, respectively. Hutchinson is the pacifist who has lost his faith, the polar opposite of the headstrong ex-convict so eager to defend his turf. Their personalities subtly change in carefully measured perfs.
Other standouts include Annabel Armour as the family’s stern but compassionate matriarch and Jim Zidar as the forthright father. Other siblings are also credible, especially Susan Bennett as the lovesick daughter who delivers the play’s final, powerful scene. A memorable turn comes from Stephen Patrick Martin as Steinbeck’s voice of doom, who warns the freshly optimistic family about the perils of migrant life in California.
The action is accompanied by period songs and dressed up with Miguel Angel Huidor’s authentic country costumes. But the gloomy story is made unnecessarily darker by Marcus Doshi’s sparse lighting, often effective but occasionally illuminating scenes so dimly they can barely be seen. That, combined with some heavy Okie accents, means the audience often must strain to comprehend. But overall, this is a production to be treasured, just like the Steinbeck novel.