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A scene from "The Grapes of Wrath" at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

David Hou / Stratford Shakespeare Festival

3 out of 4 stars

Art almost always trumps history. We may well know Shakespeare's depiction of Richard III as a homicidal hunchback wasn't entirely accurate, but that's still the first image that comes to mind when you think of the last of the Plantagenet kings.

Similarly, for the generations who have studied the novel in high school or seen the sanitized 1940 film adaptation with Henry Fonda, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is the Great Depression. The story of the Joad family - sharecroppers forced off their farm, who travel thousands of miles to California in search of promised jobs, only to find labour unrest and violent poverty - is the dominant mythology of the Depression even if, as with Richard III, questions have been raised about its historical hyperbole.

Frank Galati's stage adaptation of Steinbeck's 1939 novel was written for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1988, then went on to win a Tony when it played on Broadway. It's a large-scale work: In addition to the 12 members of the extended Joad family who pack into a Hudson Super Six to make the trek from Oklahoma, there are several dozen more roles listed in the program.

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It's the type of work few Canadian companies outside the Stratford Shakespeare Festival could afford to put on - as good a reason as any for them to stage it.

In its epic nature and unflinching ensemble performances, Stratford general director Antoni Cimolino's production of this powerful parable that uses biblical language to preach a progressive gospel has much to recommend it.

The climatic scene where Rose of Sharon (Chilina Kennedy) gives birth in an abandoned boxcar while the male Joads get soaked to the bone trying to stop a rising river outside is theatrically thrilling. (John Arnone's otherwise simple set includes a trench filled with water and pouring rain from the sky.) The Grapes of Wrath's two central performances are powerfully played. Evan Buliung gives us a passionate everyman in Tom Joad, the angry young man who seeks out justice, but makes trouble for his family in the process. Likewise, Tom McCamus is right on the mark with his louche and loquacious Jim Casy, a lapsed preacher who dispenses world-weary wisdom. The folksiness of Casy's speechifying does wear thin after a while, but that's Steinbeck and Galati's fault rather than McCamus's.

As the saintly sister Rose of Sharon, Kennedy drabs down well and is heartbreaking in her unwavering optimism - only her bright, shining teeth give her away as less than impoverished. Janet Wright is stoic, almost unexpressive as Ma Joad; while it's a much better performance than her monotonous turn in Merry Wives of Windsor, it still seems aimed at a camera a few metres away rather than the back of the Avon Theatre.

While Cimolino delivers solid storytelling, he makes a couple of directorial missteps. The first is that his production seems headed for tragedy right from the get-go. This makes the evening almost unremittingly grim - and, with Steven Hawkins's lighting, nearly non-stop dark - and diminishes the emotional impact of the consecutive let-downs.

The other miscalculation is in the bluegrass revival band that follows the Joads on their journey, giving snippets of song in between. The anachronistically attired trio led by Andrew Penner keeps pulling the audience out of the story, rather than moving it along.

This is the point in a review when a theatre critic duly points out the continuing relevance of the story of the Joads and its timeliness in light of our own economic turmoil. I'm going to skip it. In a way, there's something so extreme about the family's deprivations that reading or seeing The Grapes of Wrath might actually make us overlook less startling economic injustices. "Hey! I know things are bad, but they're not The Grapes of Wrath," Margaret Wente wrote in a Globe column about stimulus spending at the start of 2009. I fear that may be one of The Grapes of Wrath's legacies: If women aren't breastfeeding starving homeless men, well, then….

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The Grapes of Wrath

  • Based on the novel by John Steinbeck
  • Adapted by Frank Galati
  • Directed by Antoni Cimolino
  • Starring Evan Buliung, Tom McCamus, Janet Wright
  • At the Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ont.

The Grapes of Wrath runs at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival until Oct. 29.

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