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[whitespace] Hardscrabble: Jacqueline Hillsman, Linda Hoy and Greg Bratman escape the dust bowl in 'The Grapes of Wrath.'

Where the Work Is

TheatreWorks' 'Grapes of Wrath' looks at the lure of the Golden State

By Heather Zimmerman

WHAT IS IT about California that it has always been where the jobs are? Offices have long since supplanted the orchards of the Santa Clara Valley, but whatever the current industry, workers still come here. TheatreWorks has chosen an apropos time, at the heart of the most recent economic boom, to stage the tale of a previous workers' migration to the Golden State, with Frank Galati's dramatic adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

Y2K Silicon Valley seems like a different universe from the Depression-era Oklahoma dust bowl where the Joad family, like so many other farmers at the time, lose their farm to bank foreclosure and head west to California with more than a dozen family members crammed into a rickety old Hudson. The journey is perilous enough, but once across the California border, the Joads' plight scarcely improves. In a market glutted with desperate laborers, the "bountiful" work picking crops goes to those who accept the lowest pay.

Directors Robert Kelley and Leslie Martinson have created a realistic record of the Depression, and this production conjures a bleak sense of the hopelessness--and suppressed outrage--of the time. Among the large cast there are some truly powerful performances. As the unofficial head of the Joad family, son Tom, Mark Phillips does not disappoint, imbuing the character with both the dignity and the paradoxically rational hotheadedness he possesses in the novel. Linda Hoy brings good-hearted appeal to Ma Joad, and Bill Badger's Grandpa Joad offers some warmly comic moments.

Folk/bluegrass musicians provide background music and make the transitions between scenes. Tom Langguth's set designs are beautifully spare, with rough planks on the stage and lonely silhouettes of farmland scenes forming a vast--almost sinister--backdrop. Echoing the earthiness of farmwork, this production is steeped in the elements: mounds of dirt appear from a hole "dug" in the stage; to simulate a river, the actors wade in a sizable pool of water built into the edge of the stage; and a rainstorm actually drenches the stage. But oddly enough, with such hyperrealism, the production becomes a bit unreal. These devices--though brilliantly executed--seem artificial, and in a sense, make too lavish a gesture for a story about abject poverty.

In its production values and performances, this play is meticulous and superb. But the devil really is in the details--in this case, perhaps too many--and swooping from one desperate scene to another, the production at times bypasses the novel's emotional power in favor of wallowing in the general squalor. Clichéd as it may sound, The Grapes of Wrath put a face on poverty and injustice--this production is at its best when it doesn't turn away from the individuals who suffer from it--and reminds us that the Joads have never really left the Golden State.

The Grapes of Wrath plays Tuesday at 7:30pm (except Oct 31), Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm through Nov. 5 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St, Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$38. (650.903.6000)

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From the October 26-November 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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