Students at Mill River Union High School in Clarendon will perform a stage version of The Grapes of Wrath this weekend. Theater director Peter Bruno says the Steinbeck classic seems especially relevant with Americans debating refugee resettlement, class inequality and the power of the police.
To set the mood, Mill River’s stage is framed with weathered wooden planks. Props are minimal, except for a ramshackle old pickup that the cast piles into for their perilous journey west.
“You’ve been awful quiet lately. What's a matter gettin' sour?” asks Tom Joad, played by Gabe Clapp-Clark, a senior.
“Nah, I’m just all worried up,” answers Dan Forti, a 15-year-old who plays Jim Casy. “See, there’s a helluva lot of cars going west and no going east,” he says slowly. “It’s like the whole country’s moving.”
“The whole country is moving,” agrees Joad. "We’re moving, too.”
For many living in parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and the Texas panhandle in the 1930s, it probably did feel like everyone was moving.
A lengthy drought had shriveled the landscape of the plains, and tens of thousands of so-called Dust Bowl families fled their farms and headed west, hoping for a better life in California.
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, on which this play is based, tells the story of one of those families, the Joads.
Ma Joad, the family’s matriarch, is played by 15-year-old Alyssa Shaw. “I like to think of how nice it’s going to be, maybe, in California,” her character says to son Tom. “Never cold and fruit everywhere and people just being in the nicest places and little white houses in among the orange trees.
“I wonder if we all get a job and work, if we can get one of them little white houses,” she says softly.
“Maybe,” answers Tom.
Peter Bruno teaches English and theater arts at Mill River Union. “This novel has always been one of my favorites,” he says. “It was way ahead of its time.”
He says the story of the Joads seems especially relevant now, with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ call to fight class division, President-elect Donald Trump’s pledge to build a wall and the Rutland community’s deep divide over refugee resettlement.
“And I think this story, this novel, so captures those moments,” he says. “I think we can substitute the Joads for many people. The Syrians coming into Rutland seeking a safe haven is one of them,” says Bruno.
He adds: “I think the Joads can represent the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community ... I think the Joads represent all of the people who feel oppressed, discriminated against and ignored."
Alyssa Shaw nods. She says the play is about a family’s struggle to survive and stay together despite death, poverty, hunger and the scorn they encounter on their journey.
She says Ma Joad was the family’s source of strength, and playing her character made her think about what some of the Syrian refugee families are going through today.
“A lot of people, from what I’ve heard, don’t want the refugees coming,” says Shaw. “And to me that’s completely ridiculous, because if you thought of it from your perspective, you’d do anything to keep you and your family safe.
“So I think anyone who comes to the show should think very deeply about what it would be like if it was happening to them and how awful it truly is.
“Obviously,” admits Shaw, “our characters in our play cannot do justice to what is actually happening in the world, but we're trying our best.”
Fellow cast mate Daniel Forti agrees.
“I think the great message of this show is people are people, and you can’t discriminate based on something you don’t know, or stereotype a large group of people based on the acts of one person," he says.
Bruno says at a time when the country is divided over so many issues, he believes art and literature become even more important.
“Art is extremely powerful in allowing people to see things and hear stories that question the status quo,” says Bruno. He says art steps in to help us “push back against what we take for granted, or perhaps what many of us are too busy or too afraid to address.”
Bruno says he’s proud his students have worked hard to do that with The Grapes of Wrath.
Mill River Union will perform The Grapes of Wrath on Nov. 17, 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m.