‘Grapes’ doesn’t make use of Academy’s talent

I kept falling in and out of like with "The Grapes of Wrath" at the Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts. It’s a moving production that’s good enough to make you want better.

Frank Galati’s 1990 Broadway adaptation offers an effective whiff of John Steinbeck’s celebrated novel. We follow a Depression-era family as it makes its way from devastated Oklahoma to the "salvation" of California. The script is a reminder that workers’ rights in this country were born not of employers’ sense of fair play, but of government regulation.

Director John Morris keeps the story moving with an expert pace. The 2-hour, 35-minute drama (with intermission) never gets bogged down. The acting is proficient and occasionally exemplary.

Alan Hughes as the ex-convict son Tom projects an amiable spirit. He knows how to toss off a line.

When Kelley Malloy as younger son Noah, half-deliriously tells Tom that he’s had enough of traveling starved across the country, you know Malloy means it.

And Jayce Johnson as a former preacher somehow manages to suggest the soul of a good, tired man with a spiritually troubled past. (That’s an especially noteworthy achievement considering Johnson’s youth.)

Gerald Born’s set, Scott Carpenter’s lights and Aleks Wade’s sound offer a sometimes breathtaking feel for the physical environment. The star-pocked night skies, the open landscapes, the wire and chain-link fences, the impressions of distant insect and animal vocals, help make the land a fully realized character.

But there are too many times when the actors don’t connect to the action. When Hughes as Tom returns home from jail, he doesn’t seem particularly affected that his family is missing. When Vanessa Hill as Ma sees her son all bloodied up, she shows no interest in his wounds. And too many of the characterizations border on caricature. You get the feeling some of the actors don’t understand on a gut level who these people are.

The use of onstage singing musicians, despite the professional-level expertise, often intrudes on the action rather than enhances it. When the musical performers suddenly get up from the pit in the middle of a scene to go backstage to prepare for an entrance, you wonder: Are we not supposed to notice how they are interrupting the onstage events?

The production earned my affection, even though I walked away regretting that Morris hadn’t taken full advantage of the talent at his disposal.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at DelValle@aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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