As he sits in the lobby at A Noise Within in Pasadena, director Michael Michetti — lean and with an easy air — admits emotion motivated this production of Frank Galati‘s 1988 adaptation of John Steinbeck‘s novel.
“I think we live our lives in such an insular way, protecting ourselves and our personal needs. The kind of generosity in understanding there is something bigger to dedicate ourselves to is a message so beautiful and important. I need to be reminded of it continually.” That message pours through the story and, he admits, is why he asked ANW producing artistic directors and founders Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott to program it on their year-old thrust stage.
Steinbeck’s Depression-era saga of the Joad family packing the fewest of their most precious possessions into their truck and inching their way toward high hopes in California is so commonly read, Michetti muses, that he is willing to give away one plot point after another. But for those who do not remember it, or who did not see the 1940 film with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad — here played by Steve Coombs (ANW’s Romeo, The Heiress at Pasadena Playhouse, Dorian Gray at Boston Court, Ensemble Studio Theatre’s House of the Rising Son) — admitting plot points is outweighed by the humanity they contain.
“Most works of narrative art tend to fall into the category of cautionary tales or redemptive tales. I think this one does both quite beautifully. It is very easy to see on the surface the cautionary tale: the greed and corruption and a tremendous amount of loss in their lives. But throughout the journey are big dramatic moments, along with seemingly small and insignificant ones, where someone who has undergone so much loss and pain finds someone who is worse off than they are and does something for them.”
Case in point is a moment that Michetti stages in the background. The family has just arrived in Hooverville, California. “It’s filled with families who are sick and searching for work and they don’t find it and they have virtually no food and no prospects. Ma (Deborah Strang — ANW resident artist, The Beaux’ Strategem, The Doctor’s Dilemma) is cooking at their camp and a little boy comes up and stares at her. With the little food they have left, Ma shares a piece with him.”
In another example, when they first arrive from Oklahoma, Tom’s father (Lindsey Ginter in his ANW debut) suggests they play a trick on Ma. “Pa yells into the house that a couple of guys just came here, can we invite them to dinner? Ma says, sure, just tell them to wash their hands. Without even blinking, her first reaction is, while we don’t have much, if there’s someone who needs something, let’s give it to him.”
Of course, the ultimate sacrifice comes at the end of the novel and the play. Rose of Sharon (Lili Fuller) has delivered a stillborn baby. “They seek shelter in a barn and find a starving man. He has a young child who is scared that his father is dying. Rose of Sharon chooses to give nourishment from her own breast to this man who is worse off than this young woman who lost this child. Stunningly beautiful moments of people giving generously of themselves when it would be very easy to justify a pity party.”
God and politics
Jim Casy (Matt Gottlieb) is a former preacher who has spent time in the wilderness to “think”. “He came to broader understandings of spirituality that differ from what Christians in general, and certainly Christians of the Bible Belt in that era, would adopt,” Michetti says. “A lot of his philosophies are based on Emersonian ideas. He got to wondering why we have to ‘hang it all on God and Jesus. Maybe there’s one big spirit, the human spirit, and maybe we’re all part of it.'” It was heresy.
Casy talks about the holiness of people who come together with a goal, who all share one spirit, “as if we’re all rays coming from the same light source.” Michetti, with two Ovation and four LADCC awards, adds, “I think you could make great arguments that it does not contradict the teachings of Christianity. It’s first a spiritual idea, then political, because by the end of the novel Jim Casy comes to realize that same harnessing of the human spirit is needed in order to politically gain the kind of wages they deserve. It’s still about everyone coming together to do good.”
Casy’s notions and biblical re-inventions affect the Joad family. When Casy first encounters Tom, he explains himself and admits these thoughts are why he can’t be a preacher any more. “In fact,” says Michetti, “Tom says to him, ‘you can’t hold no church with idears like that.’ Yet Tom does not reject Casy.”
They invite him to dinner and to say grace. At the end of a prayer that sounds new and oddly spiritual, “Everyone says amen, not ‘what the heck was that?’ Casy asks if he can join them on their journey and they allow him, even though they really don’t have the means for it. Soon, Grandpa (Gary Ballard in his ANW debut, Fountain’s Orpheus Descending and Summer and Smoke) dies and they ask Jim to say a prayer over the grave. Casy does, but repeatedly says he’s still trying to figure it all out.”
Some time passes, Casy spends a stint in jail, and coincidentally re-unites with the Joads at Hooper Ranch where the family has arrived to pick peaches at a nickel per bushel. They pull up as people are loudly protesting out front.
“Tom goes to investigate. He sees a tent and finds Casy, who’s really the one leading the strike. Casy realized that if people can come together and demand what they want, they can get it. He tells Tom to go back to tell his family to come out, because if there’s nobody to pick the fruit, the growers will cave in and pay them what they’re worth.”
Tom resists because his family finally has a little food. And, in one of his plot give-aways, Michetti emotionally explains someone kills Casy and Tom kills the man who murdered him. “Then Tom says goodbye to Ma in that famous scene. He tells Ma that he can remember every word that Casy ever said.”
Michetti’s voice cracks. His eyes well up and he pauses.
“Suddenly it has all come to Tom. He learned that we are all part of one spirit and he needs to go and apply these principles for all people, even if that means leaving his family. Ma asks how she’ll know that he’s okay. He begins the beautiful speech that we’re all part of one spirit and ‘wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop that beats up someone who doesn’t deserve it, I’ll be there. And wherever there are people able to live in the house they built and eat the food they grew, I’ll be there.'”
Asked why the moment so stirred his emotions, Michetti draws a breath. “I am not a pushover emotionally. I rarely cry simply at sadness. Somebody who has a loss doesn’t so much move me. Somebody who does something heroic moves me. Somebody who tries to make the world a better place for someone else, where their own needs are sublimated for a greater good, moves me.”
He says he teared up in their first rehearsal. “It’s important for me not to be apologetic, because I think we too often push our emotions away. But it’s a balance trying to be the leader in something while also being emotionally vulnerable.”
Futzing with a classic
Frank Galati’s 1988 adaptation premiered under his own direction at Steppenwolf in Chicago. (He is a member there and an associate director at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre). The play traveled to La Jolla Playhouse, where Michetti remembers seeing its vivid use of space and sets. The piece went on to warm reviews in London and New York where it earned Galati the 1990 Tony for direction, along with six more nominations, including acting nods for Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Lois Smith.
At A Noise Within, however, Michetti is not only undaunted, but rather spirited, by the challenges. “Steppenwolf had a real truck on stage. It had rivers and rain. We have the ability for none of those things here, so we needed to find creative solutions. I think, like with any piece of great literature and I think this is, you go back to the text to see what it tells you.”
The first words of the play, he says, are Steinbeck’s. “It’s a piece of narration that comes from the novel. There are narrators throughout, storytellers, who are one step removed from being inside the story.” Those words reminded him of the story’s simple nature.
Michetti is also using the music that Michael Smith created for the Steppenwolf production. “A live band is able to help carry some of the narrative passages and serve as a storytelling device. They go to start up the truck, for example, and the music creates the sound of the sputtering engine before it kicks in.”
The text, he says, offers such poignant possibilities for the theater. Rather than construct an actual truck, as the original production did, “our truck is literally assembled from the cast-offs of their lives: chairs and benches, pieces of fence and headboards and milk cans and kegs; lanterns become headlights. It’s really an extension that’s well expressed in the novel about how precious these things are to them.”
There will be no rest for Michetti. Just as Grapes of Wrath gets under way, he begins rehearsals for Dan Dietz’ American Misfit at the Theatre @ Boston Court, where he and Jessica Kubzansky are the artistic directors. And because of ANW’s repertory calendar, the two shows close on the same weekend.
The Grapes of Wrath, A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena 91107. Opens February 23. In repertory; various dates and times. Through May 11. Tickets $46-50. www.anoisewithin.org/. 626-356-3100.
***All The Grapes of Wrath production photos by Craig Schwartz.