“If John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ is epic then his ‘East of Eden’ is mythic.”
So says Frank Galati in a 2015 interview with the Chicago Tribune when asked about the author’s most popular novel versus his most ambitious one, which Galati adapted for Steppenwolf Theatre’s world premiere production and services Ensemble Theatre’s current staging.
“‘East of Eden’ surely is the more challenging of the two narratives when it comes to dramatization,” he added. “Its emotional demands are more complicated, internalized, intense.”
Complicated, internalized and intense are exactly what is missing from Ensemble’s production of the play, resulting in a valiant but largely ineffective effort under Ian Wolfgang Hinz’s direction.
“East of Eden” is a retelling of the biblical Cain and Abel story through a uniquely American lens. The family saga is set in Salinas Valley in northern California during the first two decades of the 20th century. Adam Trask and his wife Cathy settle on a prime plot of land he hopes to turn into a lush and bountiful farm. But Cathy is a fallen woman who neither feels love nor sees beauty while Adam is imbued with an excess of both of those qualities.
When she gives birth to twins Caleb and Aron, she leaves. As the twins grow older, Aron manifests his father’s good heart whereas Cal exhibits his mother’s hard exterior and ruthlessness. But are they the product of nature or nurture? Can they change their stars? Anyone who has read the Old Testament knows how this plays out, so the pleasure in Steinbeck’s story as told by Galati is in the telling.
Galati is so respectful of Steinbeck's epic everyman poetry that much of the 600-page novel fills this three-hour, three-act play. The end product has some pacing issues as the words go from page to stage and this places incredible demands on the actors to find clearly delineated and authentic characters within the weighty allegorical verbiage they’ve been handed.
This proves to be too much of a challenge for most of the actors in this Ensemble production. Those with minor roles (Greg White, Whit Lowell, Sarah Blubaugh and Mia Radabaugh) struggle with authenticity and their often belabored delivery slows down the proceedings.
As for the featured players, there appears to be a huge gap between how these characters are defined and their often flat, overly simplified portrayals by Jill Levin as Cathy, Kyle Huff as Caleb, August Scarpelli as Aron, and Joey Cayabyab as the Trask’s aphorism-spouting Chinese man-servant, Lee. None find a physicality that best defines the people they inhabit, though Huff and Scarpelli are convincing as 13-year-old versions of the boys. And no one dares to take emotional risks in a play that demands them.
This is, except for Scott Miller as Adam Trask and Dana Hart as his friend Sam Hamilton. They are brilliant. Their highly empathetic and accessible portrayals of these two men – the impractical and innocent Adam and the joyous and insightful Sam – are well-grounded in Steinbeck’s 1952 novel and their performances are astonishingly compelling.
Together on stage in the first scene of the play, they create high expectations for this production that then dissipate once they exit and are only revived upon their return and in the moments when the talented Leah Smith as Abra Bacon, the love interest for both Caleb and Aron, and Valerie Young as her mother, perform.
Hinz’s scenic and light design, while attractive, offers none of the vistas or fallow farmland referenced in the text. But a simple wood plank stage with a few period pieces of wood furnishings and a projection screen in the rear that displays background colors for each scene nicely captures the illusory nature of the story being told.
“East of Eden” is surely a challenging narrative to stage, as are many of the plays Ensemble Theatre loves to tackle. But the company has been bested this time around.