By Jay Handleman, Herald Tribune, April 11, 2018

Stage version of John Steinbeck’s classic story runs through April 29

It is sad to consider how timely John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” still remains nearly 80 years after it was published.

Steinbeck’s story about the hard-working Joad family, migrant workers escaping the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to find a better life picking fruit and vegetables in California, could almost be set today. He wrote about good people trying to eke out a living and the forces of authority and government that seem to be working against them at every turn.

Specifics may have changed, but the realities haven’t, with the poor struggling to stay afloat amid a widening division between the haves and have nots.

In his 1990 Tony Award-winning stage adaptation, Frank Galati captured much of what made Steinbeck’s original novel so moving and memorable in a highly theatrical format. And the play’s strength is evident in the production that Kelly Wynn Woodland has staged to close the Venice Theatre’s mainstage season.

The performances may be uneven, as is to be expected in any community theater production with a large cast, but Woodland gets to the heart of the story and the characters. Even if an actor may not be convincing or believable (or stumbles on a line), the others pick up some of the slack and make you feel you’re traveling with the Joad family on their 2,000-mile trip of hope and frustration.

That journey is beautiful to watch on the impactful set designed by the constantly surprising Tim Wisgerhof, who uses a variety of drops and moveable pieces to take us to various migrant camps and Hoovervilles. The stage floor is covered with wood planks that support the old jalopy that somehow carries 13 family members (the same car used in Asolo Rep’s 2014 production).  Panels in the floor are moved at times to reveal the refreshing waters of the Colorado River or to catch a downpour that threatens a temporary shelter.

The set design takes on a warm glow from the lighting by John Michael Andzulis, who effectively displays a camp being burned to the ground. Francine Smett’s worn and earthy costumes fit right in with it all.

The cast is led by Venice Theatre newcomer Martha Maggio as Ma Joad, who is the heart and soul of the story. Though she speaks in a kind of clenched, whispery, sing-song voice that doesn’t offer much vocal variety, Maggio clearly understands the spirit of Ma, a woman who keeps her family moving forward because there’s no point in looking back. She’s a pragmatist.

Jeremy Guerrero plays her son, Tom with a genuine conviction, as his character struggles to understand how people with even the most limited authority can use it to feel more empowered by holding others back. He lets us see an activist being born.

And Rik Robertson, as the former preacher Jim Casy, reveals a man on a mission of discovery. Jim may have given up on the church, but he is still a philosopher trying to put together his disjointed thoughts, revealing how need can drive people to do things they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

Caleb Allen has a good, youthful spirit as Tom’s younger brother, Al, who keeps the truck running and eagerly seeks out girls at every stop. Rick Kopp is effective if not fully convincing as Pa Joad. Alyssa Pasick is suitably forlorn as Tom’s pregnant sister, Rose of Sharon, who plays a key role in one of the story’s most memorable scenes, the finale when she helps revive a dying man. But that moment needs a bit more focus to convey its full impact.

Music coordinator and singer Preston Boyd leads a trio of musicians performing some traditional, Woody Guthrie-type folk songs and enhancing the feelings and mood, particularly during scene changes.

Like the Joads’ adventures, the production deals with a few bumps in the road, but by the end, you can’t help feel for the plight of these characters and wish there was something you could do to help.