Los Altos Stage Company's current production of "The Grapes of Wrath" is blessed with a mostly excellent cast, fine direction from Jeffrey Lo, a pretty set and even a good little barefoot band in the corner.
What it's missing is desperation, starvation, a sense of place and palpable death.
It is likely that no shortened version of John Steinbeck's 1939 masterpiece novel can ever really accomplish what exists in the book's nearly 500 pages. Not a play, not a movie (even with a great speech by Henry Fonda).
Every page in Steinbeck's Great Depression-set book is magnificent and powerful. The prose makes it so but also its ultimate meaning makes it so: Yes, horrible things happen to human beings -- such as evil bankers and disastrous droughts -- but in the end, the human spirit pulls us through.
The story: Tom Joad is released from prison after only four years of a seven-year sentence for murder. As he reconnects with family and friends, the first thing they all ask is "Did you bust out?"
The family farm in Oklahoma has been bulldozed by the foreclosing bank and the family, after reading flyers offering jobs in California, has decided to migrate. On their trip they begin to learn that it's all a heartless scheme by farm owners. Thousands of Okies, Arkies and other ruined farmers come to California begging to work for pathetic wages and find the jobs are all taken and there is no land left for them to homestead their own farms.
But the Joads -- and thousands of others -- have no money left to return to their Dust Bowl homes and there is nothing left for them there anyway.
The 12 people in the Joad group start dying or running off.
To put even a modest amount of Steinbeck's tale on stage, a great deal of creativity is needed.
The play does not really communicate the desperation of the Joads, as they struggle to find food for their children, and for Rose of Sharon, who is pregnant.
Its weaknesses are mostly the fault of Frank Galati, who adapted it from the novel.
Christopher Fitzer's set is beautiful, with corrugated fiberglass and wood-beamed back wall, and a hanging flag in the corner. Lana Palmer's sound design may be the best I've ever heard in the old Bus Barn Theater. Miranda Waldron's lighting design was excellent. Melissa Sanchez's costume design put everybody in old farmer clothes and ragged jackets.
Kudos to the band: Bruce Avery on guitar, Emily Chiet on violin and oogha-horn, and Lana Palmer on banjo. They weren't loud but added a gentle bit of atmosphere.
It was cute how 12 members of the cast squished in behind what looks like an old bed frame with lanterns hanging from it to represent the front of a Hudson car that's been converted into a truck. Presumably the work of props designer Ting Na Wang.
But while we are told the Joad family is travelling through dusty prairie, arid desert and fearfully high mountains, we don't see them. We don't feel them. Some projections -- or something -- would have helped us understand what the Joads were experiencing. And we are given little understanding about how terrible it really was.
Lo's cast is almost uniformly excellent, although only a few of them managed anything close to Okie accents.
Jorge Luis Diaz is a very good Tom Joad. He is wounded after prison but recovering his strength and his endless sense of righteousness. Tom Joad stands up for people.
Judith Miller is great as Ma Joad. There is never a moment she doesn't have a matriarchal sense of purpose and the strength to deliver. A lovely woman out of stage makeup, as Ma Joad she has the pinched face of a plains woman who's spent too much time in the sun and dust.
Todd Wright is delightful as Grandpa Joad, and the stage really loses something when he dies. His last gasp is a very nice touch, but pathos was missing in the staging of his death (Wright comes back in some other roles).
Michael Champlin has a good turn as Jim Casy, the failed preacher, who does what he can to bring a voice of reason in hard times. Lawrence-Michael C. Arias has a number of very good scenes as Uncle John, who drinks too much and is burdened with guilt for his missteps in life.
Ross Briscoe is Al Joad, who likes women about as much as Uncle John likes booze but doesn't feel guilty about it. Gary Landis is quite strong as Pa Joad, who tends to argue with the smarter Ma Joad but ends up doing what she says.
April Culver doesn't have that many lines, although she's very good with what she has -- and in a good Oklahoma accent at that -- but it's what she does with her face and movement that really makes her role as Rose of Sharon stand out.
And Katie Maupin as young Ruthie Joad is a teaching moment in what a young actor can do. She has very few lines, but watch her face. See how she advances a scene with glances, reactions and small movements. Excellent.
The most beautiful and important scene in the book, at the very end, should also be the most beautiful and important in the play, although on stage it is rushed through, leaving too little room for understanding, pathos and appreciation.
Rose of Sharon, who has been starving like everybody else (not well expressed in the play), gives birth to a stillborn baby whose body is lost in a rainstorm flood. A man comes in who is dying of starvation, too weak and sick to even eat bread. Rose of Sharon, whose breasts are full of the milk meant for her baby, takes the man to her breast to save his life.
That's what the novel and the play are about: We struggle, but it's our acts of courage that help us save each other.
Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What:"The Grapes of Wrath."
Where: Bus Barn Theatre, Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos,
When: Through May 5 (show times vary).
Info: LASC or 650-941-0551.