An actual 1930s-era Chevy truck gets parked onstage during UCCS Theatreworks' production of The Grapes of Wrath. At different times, the set also features a river, rain, fire and 32 actors playing the parts of nearly 100 characters.
"It's a spectacle," says guest director Geoffrey Kent.
In fact, Kent calls Grapes the largest show he's contributed to. The 36-year-old works in Denver as a fight director, which means he's responsible for staging any violence a play calls for with an eye toward safety and story. He says he got involved with Grapes because Theatreworks' artistic director, Murray Ross, felt his fight-scene background could help Kent shepherd the cast through challenging technical elements.
Kent says he feels honored to work on the play, since the Joad family epic is one of his favorites.
"I always have a powerful, emotional response to the story," he says.
As the featured selection in the Pikes Peak Library District's All Pikes Peak Reads program, John Steinbeck's 1939 novel is the focus of discussion groups, lectures and screen productions. The library district, in conjunction with Colorado College, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak Community College, also is bringing National Book Award winner Timothy Egan here to discuss his history of the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time. (See "Kicking up dust," Fine Print, Sept. 18.) And local radio station KCME-FM 88.7 provides an auditory highlight on the APPR schedule with its Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (See the 7 Days item for Sunday, on the opposite page.)
But Theatreworks' Grapes production has the chance to provide the most visceral interpretation of 1930s suffering in rural America. Local composer and musician John-Alex Mason wrote and performs an original score for the play, and New York actor Josh Clayton plays Tom Joad.
"Josh is exceptional at executing both the fire of Tom and heart of Tom really well," says Kent. "He can react and switch emotions on a dime, just as Tom does."
Leslie O'Carroll, who plays the iconic Ma Joad, has acted at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts for 20 years. Kent calls her the heart of the play, holding the cast together much the way Ma holds her family together. Meanwhile, Frank Galati's adaptation captures the spirit of Steinbeck's book without making the audience feel, in Kent's words, "like it's watching a version of CliffsNotes."
"What makes Grapes of Wrath timeless," Kent continues, "is that at the heart of this story about homelessness is a story about the importance of family in the face of an unsupportive government. Steinbeck's book and Galati's script show that sacrifice of self for others is what matters.
"As Tom says in the book, 'Wherever there's someone suffering, I'll be there.' We all count, and there's a need for us to look out for each other."