Monday, March 30, 2015

Diction robs potential of SVSU's "Grapes of Wrath"

review by janet i. martineau

There is so much to praise, so so much, about the Saginaw Valley State University production of "John Steinbeck's The Grapes on Wrath."

But, unfortunately, there is also a giant shadow that threatens to overwhelm it.


Too many of the 36 members in the cast, at least on opening night Wednesday, mumbled their words and/or did not project in this play that is all about words. And sadly it was most prominent among its leads. 

There also was on that night an overall languid motion to the play, a lack of atmospheric energy and emotional commitment to the characters. An unusual situation in anything directed by David Rzeszutek, which usually bristle with energy and cast commitment to characters.

The production is loaded with vignettes -- two or three people speaking and numerous other cast members in various side ensembles working on something, like washing dishes, packing up the car, digging graves. They need you to believe they are doing what they are doing. In too many cases they do not.

But as we noted there are many many bright spots as well -- chiefly among cast members with small parts and who just nail them.

No. 1 in that department is Carl Mizell, who plays a homeless camp character named Floyd. His diction and projection outstanding. Totally into his character, even when not speaking lines but is a side picture to the action. Energy palatable. He connected.

Also delivering the goods is Blake Mazur as the simpleton Joad family son -- his body  movements and his speaking patterns spot on, character not caricature. He is lovable, someone you care about.

Kenneth Elmore is humorous as the profane and stubborn Granpa Joad, Cassidy Morey has all the moves down as the pregnant Rosé of Sharon sister, and as a resigned sad sack in her line delivery. Joshua Lloyd as the mayor of Hooverville is both hilarious and pathetic as a man who had endured one too many indignities in the camps of homeless and jobless "refugees" heading west in hopes of a better life in America.

And oh my God the saving grace is band leader/singer/guitarist Madalyn McHugh and her three band mates. They perform pre-show music, are a strong part of the play action once it begins, perform both original and traditional material, and sound incredibly good.

If the rest of the cast had delivered with the intensity of said above, we would've had something to really contend with in the annals of excellent productions at SVSU.

The set design by Jerry Dennis is intriguing --  a series of photographic landscape backdrops and small set pieces that drop down or are pushed on and off quickly. Minimalist but effective. And the overloaded Joad jalopy is a sight to behold as it moves around the stage.

The costumes look appropriately dust bowl.  For my preference the lighting is a little too dark but it certainly matches the mood of what is happening.

What did deliver absolute goosebumps is the connection of this 1938-set play to today's situations in America...politically, economically, environmentally. Not quite as grim as back then, but for sure in how the poor and disenfranchised are treated by the system.

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