Ubuntu Theater's 'The Grapes of Wrath' is Sure-Footed, Despite Missteps

Artistic vision is a tricky thing. It has almost nothing to do with money, or skill, or talent, or anything that you can properly quantify. Like pornography -- to borrow Judge John M. Woolsey’s famous defense of James Joyce’s Ulysses -- you know it when you see it. And where artistic vision might be difficult to get a hold of or define, it’s impossible not to see its transformative effects on everything it touches.

This puts us in a quandary in looking at Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of Frank Galati’s stage adaption of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It is at moments an amazing production, and yet it falters and sputters too many times to be fully successful. It has a vision of the theater and the world that’s admirable and sharp. You feel it build in momentum during the long and involving first act, and lose focus and purpose during the more conventionally dramatic second.

Ubuntu specializes in site-specific performance, and even though the company's production of The Grapes of Wrath isn’t staged on a road or in a farm encampment, there is something about Oakland City Church’s cavernous basement/gymnasium that rings true to the material.

At first the set seems no more than random bits of wood and industrial trashcans that you might find scattered around any busy and overtaxed church. Then some actors wander out and gather around a metal can that emits a warm glow of orange light. You know the scene -- it’s stood for poverty and desolation in countless plays and movies. And yet here in this church, at this time of great economic disparity and disruption, the normally hackneyed visual image becomes compelling.

Off to the side you hear voices singing a hymn. And from a pair of visibly obvious speakers mounted on either end of the stage, there are sound effects -- wind, rain, and a sense of vast emptiness (if the last can be captured in sound). The soundscape lends the production an immediate realism that, when you think about it, isn’t realistic at all. The sounds serve to isolate and focus our attention in subtle, simple, and sophisticated ways.

The large, 25-strong ensemble keeps things focused. There’s no overacting, only well-defined actions -- wandering, gathering around a fire, singing. This is especially true during the first act, when the supporting and bit players are exemplary in their ability to carry out a vision of a world lost to a vicious and state-sanctioned poverty.

When we finally get to Steinbeck’s story of the Joad family’s journey from dust bowl Oklahoma to the seeming promised land of California, we’re in some ways ready for the terrors that await them. The initial meeting between the newly paroled Tom Joad (William Hartfield) and the fallen minister Jim Casey (William Thomas Hodgson) is notable for its absence of staginess. Hartfield and Hodgson -- both excellent -- give their lines in an almost perfunctory manner. And because of that we pay attention to the moment, even in its seeming insignificance.

Unlike most large cast productions, you don’t just focus on the leads, but all the roles -- even the smallest. There’s an astounding exchange between a gas station owner (Timothy Redmond) and his attendant (Rolanda Bell) that is essentially a debate over whether the Joads are human or not. Without straining at all, Redmond and Bell engage in a chilling off-handed conversation that captures how easy it is to miss the humanity of the poor -- “them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human.”

The first act is filled with such moments -- a chorus of used car salesmen; a corrupt campground proprietor; a man returning from California to Oklahoma with too much knowledge to seem sane; agricultural inspectors so disarmed by how sick the Joads are that they forget to do their jobs. These aren’t afterthoughts or filler, but rather the heart of the drama. And director Michael Socrates Moran and the Ubuntu team make it all work by closely matching actor to role, prop to function, and their vision to their resources.

After the intermission, though, the production starts to strain and the high level of theatrical invention falls to the wayside. It’s partly that Galati’s adaptation becomes more conventionally dramatic and starts to require more standard notions of skill and talent. Ubuntu is so good at using what’s at hand that it’s disappointing when they start to try to approximate and account for a style ill-suited to their strengths.

When the Joads get to California and find themselves in something close to a refugee settlement, you can feel the production faltering in its desire to fully represent that world. At this point, the production becomes more presentational and static. In the previous act Ubuntu casts a spell with little means. In the second act, the production starts to feel like an approximation -- those fences aren’t real, that rain is merely a set of chains, that fight is incompletely staged. The acting -- so assured in the first act -- starts to reach for effect.

So what we have is a vision of the theater and the world that although incomplete is bracingly present. You can feel it touch every part of the material and it’s exciting. The fact that it’s not fully carried through is a criticism, but one couched in real admiration for what Ubuntu has accomplished and attempted. The company's failures feel more alive than many other theatrical "successes."

The Grapes of Wrath’runs through May 1 at Oakland City Church in Oakland. For information and tickets click here.