Gift Theatre’s “Grapes of Wrath” Review – Reminder of Steinbeck’s Greatness

Namir Smallwood as Tom Joad and Kona N. Burks as Ma Joad


Bookended by the cast as a chorus singing the line “If not now, when?” Gift Theatre gives us a multi-racial casting of Steinbeck’s classic story, as retold by Frank Galati’s script, of the so American classic—John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”. 


Michael Turrentine, Jay Worthington, Tim Martin, Emily Marso, Mesiyah Oduro, Paul D'Addario, Namir Smallwood, Alexandra Main and Jerre Dye in The Gift Theatre Company's THE GRAPES OF WRATH, directed by ensemble member Erica Weiss


Revisiting Steinbeck is good for the soul.  How wonderfully Steinbeck depicts the systematic breaking of men, women and families by exploitation.  It’s human dignity, his pen shouts, that is on the line in these struggles, and not just the more superficial name for it of “ a living wage”.


(left to right) Casey Morris, Chris Mathews, Jose Nateras and Diego Colón


Kudos and a thank you to Gift Theatre for bringing this story back to Chicago’s stages. 


(left) Casey Morris and Kyle Zornes (right)


Unlike the Steppenwolf, however, where Galati’s script was memorably staged, the 19-actor cast is crammed into an exceptionally small space that requires quite a bit of neck craning, at least for those in the front row.  There is nothing about the staging that seems to help the script flow—quite the contrary.


Diego Colon


That said, for any American alive today who has ever walked a picket line it’s good to remember that Steinbeck is one of the main guys who brought you to the dance. 


(left to right) Jay Worthington, Lane Flores, Paul D'Addario, Namir Smallwood and Michael Turrentine


(Full disclosure:  Probabilities suggest that this reviewer was the only one-time farmworker organizer in the audience on its opening night.)


Art Fox and Diego Colón


While all the actors do their part ably there are a few performances that alone should get this production on your short list of must-sees. 


Namir Smallwood in foreground as Tom Joad, with Jerre Dye as Jim Casy


Namir Smallwood as Tom Joad astounds, and especially when he delivers that famous soliloquy to his mother as he leaves the family to join the workers’ movement. 


Namir Smallwood as Tom Joad


Spoken with the careful understatement Smallwood brought to all his lines,


Namir Smallwood as Tom Joad


his so perfectly balanced delivery made this reviewer wonder if Henry Fonda just wasn’t an actor on the same par, or if the Academy Award winning director, John Ford, had somehow mucked it up with a crescendo of mood music. 


Memorable too was Jerre Dye as the one-time preacher Jim Casy.  Here, the small theater space is an asset as you watch his blue eyes grow wide and small as he moves back and forth from extroverted raconteur to troubled introspection.


Now through August 14.


For tickets or information call  (773) 283-7071 or visit the Gift Theatre website.


Gift Theatre

4802 North Milwaukee





Photos: Claire Demos



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