SONORA -- John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" is an epic tale of one family's Depression-era migration from Oklahoma to California.
Using only a postage stamp-sized stage and minimal sets, director Don Bilotti brings this story magnificently to life in his production at Stage 3 Theatre.
The Joads' car is just an assemblage of bedposts, a short staircase and other bits of furniture. The boxcar the family holes up in as shelter from the rain is a simple platform. The campfires they gather around are just golden lights turned upward.
But the story is told so powerfully that these details fade into the background. What remains is a gripping tale of human cruelty and generosity.
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I read the book last summer and was impressed with how closely Frank Galati's 1990 stage adaptation follows the 464-page book. It hits all the major scenes and covers some (such as the shocking ending) skipped in the 1940 movie starring Henry Fonda. It also includes Steinbeck's poetic language and sayings, including his moving passages about the dignity of every person, like "All that lives is holy."
Stage 3's cast is the largest the theater company has ever had, with 20 people filling its small stage. Bilotti makes them all fit without anyone running into each other with Rob Smittle masterfully handling the fight choreography.
Smittle plays Tom Joad as a ticking time bomb ready to explode. He's fed up with how migrant workers are kicked around and he doesn't like to stand by and watch it happen.
As ex-preacher Jim Casy, Michael Crich is the most thoughtful and philosophical character on stage. Humble and unpretentious, he has the best understanding of human behavior.
Sally McClellan gives one of the best performances of the ensemble as Ma, the unofficial leader of the Joad family. Strong but tender-hearted, she'll do anything to keep her family together. Doug Scott's Pa is tolerant and loving about his large brood's quirks.
John Dahlen and Susan Michael are delights as feisty Grampa and Grandma, who aren't thrilled about leaving their Oklahoma home.
Bilotti and Rick Barlow provide compelling folk music throughout the show to set the mood and heighten the drama. Maryann Curmi, Lillian McLeod, Francine LaMeire and Kimberly Teter-Cope costume the cast in appropriate "Okie" attire, including blue jean overalls.
"The Grapes of Wrath" is not only an American classic, it's also an important account of local history. There are countless valley residents whose families came to the area from Oklahoma under much the same circumstances as the Joads. This fabulous production deserves sell-out crowds throughout its five-week run.
For more on Modesto area arts, visit www.twitter.com/milleganrenner.