Mark and Tracy Photography
Claudia McCarley who plays Ma Joad, left, comforts Rose of Sharon, played by Jessamy Collier, center.
In a nation already reeling from the Great Depression, states like Oklahoma were hit especially hard after prolonged drought and fierce winds transformed them into the Dust Bowl.
John Steinbeck told how one extended family dealt with these hard times in his greatest novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Hillbarn Theatre brings this saga to its stage in the theatrical adaptation by Frank Galati.
Having lost their livelihood and home to that double whammy of the Depression and Dust Bowl, the extended Joad family, like many others, set off for California in search of work and a better life in the 1930s.
Thirteen people piled into and onto a beat-up old truck and headed west. Shortly after they arrived in Southern California, only eight remained. The others had died or left.
The first victim was the family’s patriarch, Grampa Joad (Bob Fitzgerald), soon followed by his wife and the family matriarch, Granma Joad (Kay “Kiki” Arnaudo).
Trying to hold the family together was the indomitable Ma Joad (Claudia McCarley), along with her husband, the less decisive Pa Joad (Wes Chick), and their eldest son, the loyal Tom Joad (Rich Matli).
When they arrived in California, they found that competition for jobs such as picking fruit was keen. Landowners took advantage of the migrants by paying practically nothing. Local police harassed the newcomers, especially those who would dare to try to organize for better pay. Violence and death were common.
Thanks to imaginative direction by Greg Fritsch, the 22-member Hillbarn cast brings Steinbeck’s characters to vivid life. However, the show starts slowly because it’s so talky when Tom, just paroled from prison for a murder conviction, encounters Jim Casy (Jerry Lloyd), a former preacher.
The pace picks up as other characters are introduced and the family heads west in the first act. It moves better with more action in the second of the two acts.
Moreover, the acting can be uneven, but the lead characters are fine. Especially noteworthy are McCarley’s Ma Joad and Matli’s Tom Joad.
Alan Chang’s sound design adds drama, especially at the very first with the sounds of a fierce wind whipping up the top soil and blowing it away.
Scenic designer Cheryl Brodzinsky has created a central set piece, complemented by Matthew Royce’s lighting, that does multiple duties, mainly as a wrecked house, the truck and a box car.
Kate Schroeder’s costumes reflect the times and the characters’ circumstances. However, it seems odd that the mechanically inclined Al Joad (Jeremy Helgeson) would wear the same grease-stained outfit throughout the play.
Songs like “Going Home” and others from the time enhance the production, thanks to music direction and arrangements by Greg Sudmeier.
Because of its scope and large cast, “The Grapes of Wrath” is an ambitious undertaking, especially for a community group like Hillbarn. For the most part, it’s successful, thanks not only to the cast and artistic staff but also to the genius of Steinbeck.
It will continue at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, through Feb. 9. For tickets and information call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.