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‘Grapes of Wrath’ roles take students beyond ‘dust and the New Deal.’

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When Courtney Handman first began studying the Great Depression in her American history class, she saw it as “the boring part of history we had to get through before we could study the contemporary.”

But as a cast member of the Palos Verdes Peninsula High School production of “The Grapes of Wrath,” Handman said she has learned that there was more to that period than “a lot of dust and the New Deal.”

Drama teacher Bruce Morganti said the new high school--it was established in September after the consolidation of the Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills and Miraleste high schools--was the first in the nation to be granted the rights to perform “The Grapes of Wrath,” a play based on John Steinbeck’s novel about the migration of families from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California in the 1930s.

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Frank Galati’s adaptation of the book for the stage won a Tony award for theatrical excellence in 1990.

“The play is faithful to the book,” said Morganti, who with Jim Bell directs the school’s drama program.

“It avoids oversentimentalization,” Morganti said. “It tells the story and presents the characters in the spirit that Steinbeck intended it to be done. It’s a story about an exodus of the downtrodden, but the problem is that there was no promised land.”

At first, the students had difficulty relating to the suffering of the Joad family, the central figures in the play. “To be honest, none of us have had to deal with problems like homelessness or poverty,” said Handman, a junior who plays Ma Joad.

But the students worked to understand the hardships faced by the characters, said Christopher Tipton, a senior who plays Tom Joad. They researched that period in history and watched documentaries about the Dust Bowl. Morganti was also able to personalize the lessons.

“I told them a lot of the stories my mom told me,” Morganti said. “She was one of the Dust Bowl Okies.”

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The students of Palos Verdes Peninsula High School will get their chance to tell the Joad family’s story tonight at 8 p.m. and in performances during the next two weekends at the school’s performing arts center.

This is the new school’s first theatrical production. The consolidation of the three drama programs allows the directors to “get the pick of the litter,” Morganti said. “We have a lot of seasoned veterans.”

More than 300 of the school’s 3,000 students participate in drama, Morganti said. “The Grapes of Wrath” has a cast of 40 students and a technical crew of 15.

The technical crew, under the direction of Bell, extended the stage for this production and constructed a re-creation of the Colorado River that is 16 feet long and 3 feet deep. Additional special effects include rain, dust and dirt.

The production has helped ease the adjustment to the consolidation of the three high schools, said Ellen Wagner, publicity director for the drama boosters, a group of parents who volunteer their time to support the drama program.

Bell, who became a teacher in 1973 after working as a professional actor, said, “Sometimes we have kids who are really shy. It’s great to watch them blossom and bloom.”

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Seniors Rob Hume and Spencer Evans, who play Pa Joad and Jim Casy, respectively, read Steinbeck’s book and saw the film version. They said they hope to convey through their characters the poignancy of a family’s losing hope and breaking up.

The real message of the play, however, can be found in the final scene, one that Steinbeck had in mind before he wrote the book, Morganti said. “Even after all their dignity is taken away, they still have something to give,” he said.

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