A Story Divided

Paying tribute to John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is a noble task to take on. Marianne Weems had a vision of using modern day theater to bring Steinbeck’s story back to life by drawing a parallel between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the more recent recession of 2008. The director filled her production with several memorable moments, but unfortunately, the summation of the play did not meet any expectations. Even with the latest technology, talented actors, and a meaningful theme, House Divided was an awkward theater production to witness.

House Divided opened with a scene that was both unusual and immediately glum. As the sound of a ferocious wind filled the auditorium, a woman appeared on the left. Sitting on the dark stage, she slowly rotated the handle of an old projector. The machine shone the images of dark skies and wheat fields onto the surface of a house that stood center stage. A few solemn words of a narrator could be heard behind the wind, but before any sense of the scene could be made, the sounds were muted and the house’s canvas grew dark. Momentary darkness ensued, but bright lights and the bustle of a trading floor soon replaced it. Standing below a NYSE newsfeed ribbon, two workers burst into a talk, crudely greeting each other and typing away on their computers. Behind them, the Bear Sterns CEO walked into view and started a conference.

After a few short minutes, the format of the play had been established. Focus shifting from the hardships of the Great Depression to the financial chaos of the modern era, the production concluded without a clear and witty connection between the two. Sure, both times witnessed horrid economic conditions. People lost their homes and livelihoods. But what was the greater reason for joining these two events in one play?

That isn’t to say, however, that the individual stories were without a clear message or that the tech team did a poor job. If you drew your attention to the right side of the stage, you would witness one family’s gruesome journey during the Depression Era. Forced out of their farmland in Ohio, the family set out on a westward expedition to find wok. To show progress along the journey, the production crew would alter the house at the center of the stage. It would be repositioned, changed in shape, or selectively illuminated in one place to seem less like a house and more like destroyed property. The characters’ stories, consistent with the theme, would seem as tormented as the house that stood at the center of it all. As the family was nearing California, they met a man filled with lost hope. He too went to the golden state to find work, but his long and futile attempt saw nothing more than the death of his starved wife and children.

On the left, the story of a recent recession simultaneously unfolded. This time, the house at the center of the stage would look different, but tell a similar story. With white vinyl siding and large glass windows (again projected onto it), the house was symbolic of the optimistic era that expanded the housing bubble beyond all expectation. As the elegant bank worker in a beige pencil skirt and high heals calmly spoke to a frustrated homeowner, the contents of the house were taken apart and the man’s belongings were thrown out. Bear Sterns was doing great, but the average person was losing his home and livelihood.

There was an instance in which the stories began to develop a tie. The narrator spoke of the changes that the old Ohio home began to undergo once its owners left. The surrounding land became infested with weeds, the harsh winds blew open the door, and wild cats were free to roam inside the house. The eerie tone of the old narrative transforms into a comedic act as the audience is taken to 2008. A lady, whose house neighbors an abandoned property, sees wild cats walk inside the house and calls animal control. While talking on the phone, she wanders into the foreclosed home and begins to say how cute the mother cat looks beside her cubs. In a fit of laughter, the audience anticipates the tragic, yet undeniably funny, outturn of events.

Both stories were compelling and worthy of praise, with one brilliant parallel between them. To say that they are two pieces within one puzzle, however, is an overstatement.

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