The Grapes of Wrath
The Justice Theater Project
Through Sept. 2 at Cardinal Gibbons Performing Arts Center

In its productions, the Justice Theater Project has always delved head-first into issues of social oppression. Therefore, it’s fitting that the company opens its fall season with Frank Galati’s Tony Award-winning adaptation of the Steinbeck classic The Grapes of Wrath. The play itself hinges around the very issues the Justice Theater Project emphasizes in its own mission: to use the dramatic arts as a way to call public attention to the needs of the poor, marginalized and oppressed.

In Steinbeck’s novel and Galati’s theatrical interpretation, the tired, huddled masses are exemplified by the Joads, a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers forced to move west to California when natural disaster ruins their farmland and financial downfall destroys their savings. On stage, it is the various members of the Joad family who hold our eyes, ears and hearts: The starkness of their plight is imprinted on our psyche as we witness their westward odyssey. The excellent stage design of Miyuki Sku further emphasizes the element of despair: The family’s surroundings have been encased in raw hardwood and bland earthen textures. Punctuating this overwhelming sense of hopelessness are blank-faced, world-weary travelers who momentarily appear to navigate the Joads’ travels through spoken descriptions. With dirt-smudged faces and tear-filled eyes, these nameless characters create a palpable emotional lexicon.

Some playgoers may become frustrated by the play’s lack of overt drama, and the family’s willingness to plod along with stifled emotional reactions to the death of both grandparents and a stillborn baby may seem obtuse. But, this production should be credited with stripping from the story a sugar-coated view of Americana and rooting itself in the basic elements of truth. Devoid of sentimentality, the play paints a convincing portrait of faith and commitment to family in the face of crisis. This sense of human togetherness and community cooperation is compounded during the play’s final moments as the Joads’ pregnant daughter Rose of Sharon (Jaclyn Ammana) offers her own breast milk to a man dying of starvation.

This is a timely, thought-provoking production from the Justice Theater Projectone meant to broach current issues of immigration and emphasize the need for universal togetherness. Steinbeck would certainly have offered his approval. Kathy Justice

How I Got That Story
Deep Dish Theater
Through Sept. 15

Amlin Gray’s How I Got That Story satirically depicts a country enveloped in the dissonant culture of war, told through the narration of a naïve reporter, played by Kit FitzSimons, who finds himself in “Amboland,” the playwright’s fictitious Vietnam stand-in. As the reporter’s ongoing foil, Derrick Ivey’s roles are subsumed under the rubric of the “Historical Event,” meaning that Ivey adeptly portrays the 21 characters FitzSimons encounters while reporting from the war zone. This versatile collection of types is distinguished less by the costuming than the acuity of Gray’s dialogue and Ivey’s mastery of gesture, thus bringing to life characters that include an American G.I. and a weary nun, a dissident monk and a manhandled harlot.

A performance of the Historical Event is a daunting endeavor inherently worthy of a trip to the theater, especially considering several of the characters’ potential for interpretation, such as the iniquitous grand dame of Amboland’s Madame Ing who, in other productions, has been portrayed as psychotic instead of the comic figure offered by Ivey. FitzSimons, convincingly a reporter, is a steady foil for Ivey’s colorful swirl of transformation, particularly skillful at seamlessly inserting humor in the nightmare of his reporting experience while maintaining his character’s adolescence.

The only noticeable shortfall in the Paul Frellick-directed production of the Obie award-winning play is its lack of commitment to dealing with the drugged hypnosis that can envelop a country at war and ensure its downfalla dark and deep pool of destruction into which this show only dips its toes. Otherwise, Deep Dish proffers audiences talent in a hip production, cleverly covering the magnitude of war’s repercussions with a relevant urgency in the context of our current situation in Iraq. Megan Stein

A Shoe for Your Foot
Paperhand Puppet Intervention
Through Sept. 3 at UNC-CH’s Forest Theatre, Sept. 7-8 at N.C. Museum of Art

In the program notes of Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s latest creation, co-creator Donovan Zimmerman writes, “The beauty of the everyday is illustrated, simply, in an old shoe.”

However, the simplicity of A Shoe for Your Footalmost successfully portrayed as a choice in line with the show’s themecomes at a price. There are fewer puppets, less color and less movement than in past shows. While this new work has only four noteworthy puppets, they are up to par (Paperhand is undeniably talented at its craft).

A Shoe for Your Foot offers plenty to get excited about: well-crafted puppets, a humble message, kaleidoscopic live music and Paperhand’s everlasting effervescence. Megan Stein