The Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s relevant take on ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

Audiences were transported to the 1930s dusty midwest this weekend as Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) held the opening weekend for their adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath.” John Steinbeck’s literary classic tells of the Joad family abandoning their farm during the Dust Bowl to seek refuge in sunny California. It was an impressive undertaking to take on such a timeless classic, but the CRT performed a well-executed adaptation and stayed faithful to the novel’s themes of humanity and compassion, as well as taking theatrical risks.

The stage at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts mimicked the dreariness and dismal mood of the Great Depression with its muted sets, discolored clothing, broken window panes and a realistic Hudson passenger car. The car-turned-moving truck was one of the highlights of the show as it was relocated to different parts of the stage, with up to 12 cast members crammed into it in some scenes. This brought a hyper-realistic feel to the play and contributed to the movement and time changes- aspects that challenge many plays.

One of the bold risks made by CRT was the inclusion of music and a traveling cast of musicians, two aspects not featured in the original novel. Throughout the play, a guitar-playing narrator (Rob Barnes) would interrupt with setting explanations and historical context information. The musicians showcased folk instruments like a banjo, washboard, mouth harp and a washtub bass. This addition was a refreshing take on the story and alleviated some of the darkness and dryness associated with the plot. Books are limited by a lack of noise and music, so it was a smart idea to focus on and implement music in the play.

The play highlighted the themes of the novel like resilience and compassion in times of desperation. Emotional scenes felt elongated and heavy through the cast’s passionate performances and lingering quietness. These prolonged moments felt intentional and left audiences with time to mull over and reflect on similar modern examples.

“‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is deeply political and its currency in today’s world is obvious as it conjures various expressions of discrimination including white nationalism, Islamophobia, and racism against migrants, refugees and African Americans,” Gary M. English, the director of the play, writes in the program.

The production team argues that the themes touched on in the play parallel modern times and are still applicable. Although the story tells of a family from nearly a century ago, it still has importance and relevance today.

“Those directly impacted by the atrocity of the Dust Bowl suffered incredibly. They lost everything they had, rebuilding their lives almost weekly,” Eddie Vitcavage, dramaturge for the play, writes in the program. “Today, as we continue to face extreme climate changes, situations like the Dust Bowl may not be so unknown to us.”

The Connecticut Repertory Theatre may be telling a classic story, but their emphasis on modern day relevance and parallels are done attentively and with ease. You can catch CRT’s adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” from Oct. 4 to 14 at the Jorgensen.


Lucas Knight-Vezina is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at lucas.knight-vezina@uconn.edu.