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Historic 'Grapes of Wrath' production

Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre and Theatre OCU presented “The Grapes of Wrath” at Oklahoma City University. Although the production only ran for two weekends, the show certainly deserves comment as an example of excellent collaboration between the professional equity theatre from City-Rep and the academic environment.

Dr. Harry Parker, an Oklahoma City native who lives in Fort Worth where he enjoys a dual career as a professional director and as the head of the theatre department at TCU, directed the John Steinbeck classic with wisdom as well as technique. The first thing one noticed was the marvelous set, compliments of Scenic Designer Jason Foreman and Production Stage Manager Donald Jordan. The set was simple and simply brilliant, and the build required many novel complications. Costumes by Amanda Dolan, Lighting by Aaron Mooney, Properties by Larry Heyman and smooth management by Jordan and Student Stage Manager Adam Call combined to give Frank Galati’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel a riveting atmosphere.

Steinbeck’s brilliant novel takes the action of “The Grapes of Wrath” from Oklahoma’s dustbowl depression all the way to California’s fields of produce. The Joad family loads their truck and makes the long trek. On arrival they find the work advertised is nonexistent. The bare existence all these migrant workers attempt to maintain gathered together in tent camps like refugees in their own country is tragic as they waste away in despair. Yet Steinbeck offers interesting characters and the promise of faith and hope balancing the depressing subject of “The Grapes of Wrath”; Parker’s interpretation highlighted this skillfully. The journey to California over, Oklahomans leaving the theatre were hopeful, better educated in the history of what makes this state great, and proud. We have the gift of tenacity, and this play production of a great novel revealed that tenacity gracefully.

The cast was quite large but the old saying, “there are no small parts…” held true. They may not be mentioned here, but the ensemble members of the cast provided solid performances and support to the leading actors. Musical Director Sonny Franks also appeared as the Narrator/Troubadour and his professional performance was pronounced and perfect. His skill on the guitar and his vocal musicality set the mood as well as the stage for the scenes presented by the remaining cast. The story begins as Tom Joad has just been released from prison and arrives home to find the farm deserted and his family at Uncle John’s house ready to leave for the opportunities in California. He encounters their former preacher, Jim Casy, and they both join Tom’s family. Erik Schark gave a brilliant performance as Casy; the preacher was portrayed as easygoing and, while he has lost his own faith, he is still inspiring others. Schark’s timing was superb and his body language was fluid. Cameron Cobb was an excellent Tom Joad, slightly stiff from the rigors of McAlester Penitentiary, bitter at the heartlessness of abusers of power and determined to overcome. He was very tight, as if his watch was overwound and attached to an internal bomb. The two together display great timing and jocular vitality. However, Cobb was sometimes rushed in his delivery, occasionally losing the impact of vital communication.

Don Taylor was Muley Graves, the wandering neighbor who seems to have given up completely. Taylor’s performance was poignant in delivery for this role; he gave the same quality later in the play as the starving man. David Coffee was Pa Joad and Pam Dougherty was Ma Joad. They looked and acted as if they had been plucked from an ancient Life Magazine found in the attic. Both gave brilliant performances proudly indicative of their generation. Michael Jones and Jeanie Cooper Sholer played Grampa and Granma and their generation was just a little different with an equally shining performance. The interplay between the two generations was beautiful, but Grampa and Granma might have appeared in the story about up and coming settlers of the new state in a much older edition. The remaining Joad children showed the ins and outs of a large family in very interesting ways.

There were many outstanding performances in “The Grapes of Wrath”; among the large and talented cast, stand out performances were seen in the work of Scott Hynes as the Man going back from California, Steve Emerson as ‘the mayor of Hooverville’ Ruth Charnay as Mrs. Wainwright and Mark Johnson as both Mr. Wainwright and the Camp Director at Weedpatch Camp.

Overall, this production of “The Grapes of Wrath” may turn out to be one of the best productions of the season. It is now vital to check out “Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike” from City-Rep November 14th through November 23 at the Cityspace Theatre in the Civic Center, as well as “Water by the Spoonful” from theatre OCU October 31 through November 8.

For information call City-Rep at 405-848-3761 or visit Contact Theatre OCU at 405-208-5227 or