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Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2009

Campus Production of The Grapes of Wrath Premieres March 12

By Phyllis Camesano

When the Joad family drives to California in the Theater Department’s spring production of The Grapes of Wrath,they will be riding in the actual truck from the original 1988 Steppenwolf Theatre production.

The iconic car with its downtrodden but hopeful passengers is just one of many stage elements and effects employed in this epic production of John Steinbeck’s landmark 1939 novel, adapted for the stage by Frank Galati. Joe Price, associate professor of theater, directs the performance, presented in collaboration with Casting Hall Productions.

“It’s a story that is bound to resonate,” said Price. “While our current economy has not reached Depression-era depths, there is hardship, and we are all hoping for a brighter future.”

The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joads, a poor sharecropping family, as they are driven from their Oklahoma homestead by the 1930s Dust Bowl to journey across the country in search of jobs, dignity, and the Promised Land: California. Along the way, they are joined by many other equally hopeful families enduring similar plights.

The play includes 80 characters played by 27 students, many assuming four to five roles each. Through special effects, rain streams down, wind blows, and dust flies as the Joads make their way across the country. To accommodate the many scene changes, the semicircular stage includes several minisets: a river, a dirt-filled grave, the Joad family homestead, and a migrant-worker camp. Each vignette is spotlighted as the events and countryside unfold along the cross-country journey.

The sense of place is underscored by the big sky, which is an ever-present, mood-changing backdrop created with lighting effects on a cyclorama that wraps the stage. “The sky is a character,” Price said. “It is always there, embracing, beckoning, scaring.”

For sound effects and music, a group of five musicians performs live on stage. Sputtering car noises, howling wind, and Woody Guthrie– style tunes emanate from the group: Dust Bowl-era music expert and guitarist Tom Naples; Buffalo State student vocalists Jessica Hall, Valerie Wolanski, and Daige-Ann Thompson; Buffalo State student guitarist Sam Alba; and Holland High School fiddler Skylr Carrow. Price describes the group as an “updated Greek chorus.”

“To pull off a play like this, you need a full team,” Price said. “The cast must do its part. But, the scenery, the set, the costumes, and music take it to another level.”

Price joined the Buffalo State Theater Department last fall. Previously, he was the associate head of acting at the M.F.A. Professional Actor Training Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which is affiliated with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

Principal roles are played by Buffalo State students Tafik Muhammed (Tom), Alice Cunningham (Rose of Sharon), Dylan Carrow (Casey), and Star Johnson (Ma). The part of Pa is played Justin Washington, ’08. Student Jennifer Arroyo manages the stage, and student Jeff Osterer oversees sound.

Theater Department faculty and staff include technical theater director and production manager Gregory Faust (sets); assistant professor of theater Ann Emo (costume design); and assistant professor of theater Shannon Schweitzer (lighting). Faust drove to Chicago in a snowstorm to pick up the Joad jalopy and truck it back to campus.

Performances will run March 12–14 and 19–21 at 8:00 p.m. and March 14 and 21 at 2:00 p.m. in Warren Enters Theatre in Upton Hall. Tickets are $15 for the public; $10 for Buffalo State faculty, staff, and alumni, college students with ID from other schools, and senior citizens; and $6 for Buffalo State students. Tickets are free for all high school students with ID. For tickets and information, call 878-3005.