Ghent Playhouse: 'Grapes of Wrath' timely as ever


GHENT, N.Y. -- The Ghent Playhouse stage may be compact but for the next three weekends it will be as big as all outdoors.

Beginning tonight and continuing Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons through June 8, the Ghent stage will encompass Dust Bowl America during the Great Depression when "The Grapes of Wrath" opens in a stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel created by Frank Galati for his Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where the play premiered in 1988.

The cast for this production is one of the largest Ghent has had on its stage -- 26, including three musicians, says Ghent artistic director and "Grapes of Wrath" producer Cathy Lee Visscher.

"Its a huge show. One of the biggest we've had," Visscher said during a recent pre-rehearsal interview at the playhouse, just off Route 66, where she was joined by actress Sally McCarthy, who is playing Ma Joad; Ghent Playhouse publicist Judy Staber; and veteran area stage actor and director Joe Phillips, who is making his Ghent Playhouse directing debut with this show.

"It's a small place for such an ambitious undertaking," Phillips acknowledged with a wry laugh.

At a time of extensive public discourse about migrant laborers and minimum wage; when there is drought in large parts of the American West, "The Grapes of Wrath," published 75 years ago, seems as timely as ever.

"People need to be reminded of how hard it is for the homeless, the undocumented," Staber said. "This is about the have-nots and the 1 percent."

"For some of the people in Steinbeck's vision of Dust Bowl America, the promise just isn't there," said McCarthy.

Visscher remembers having seen actor Gary Sinise, as Tom Joad, do a scene from Steppenwolf's "Grapes of Wrath" during the 1991 Tony Awards show and being moved by the experience. But it wasn't until Phillips submitted the script for consideration for Ghent's 2013-14 season that Visscher, who is in her fourth year as Ghent's artistic director, considered producing the play.

"As soon as I read it," she said, "I knew that if we did nothing else this season we had to do this show."

"I have loved this play for some time," said Phillips. "I've been looking for an opportunity to do it."

Unlike director John Ford's much-beloved and admired 1940 film, which ends before the book ends, "there's not a whole lot missing from the play," Phillips said.

Galati's adaptation includes what Phillips refers to as the book's stylistic duality -- its division between the story of the Joad family and what Phillips says Steinbeck called his "jazz chapters," which examines the broader context of what was happening throughout the country; "the poetry," Phillips said, "of what's happening to people. Galati put a lot of that into the play."

For all the somberness and grit in "John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath," Phillips, McCarthy and Visscher say they are trying to capture the humor that is inherent in many of Steinbeck's characters; not just humor but also gentility, compassion, kindness, determination.

Ma Joad is emblematic of the indomitable, determined can-do American spirit that simply doesn't know how to quit, no matter what the obstacles, McCarthy says.

"She's the backbone of the family, a rock, a driving force," McCarthy said.

"A lot of dark things happen to this family and yet they keep on going," Phillips said. "They fight and, at the same time, they strive to give what they have.

"This is a play about people being kind to one another in the midst of their struggle to deal with hard times. In the midst of all this despair, people will take care of each other.

"Tom has this incredible speech about being there in other people.

"These people will never give up, no matter what happens to them."


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