Chicago Theatre Review
Steinbeck’s Classic Comes to Life
East of Eden – Steppenwolf Theatre
Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck considered his 1952 novel, inspired by the Bible story of Cain and Able, to be his magnum opus. In this sprawling saga of two neighboring families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, the author wanted to depict everything he knew was special about the Salinas Valley. Set primarily in central California between the turn of the century and the end of WWI, this new stage version, adapted by ensemble member Frank Galati, brings to life all the main characters and prominent storyline of what many believe to be Steinbeck’s finest achievement.
Rather than trying to adapt the entire novel, Galati has passed over the book’s lengthy flashbacks about the Trask family, as well as the entire history of the Hamilton clan, and focuses on the more theatrical second half of the book. What information he does include comes simply as exposition. Mr. Galati chooses, instead, to dramatize chronologically Adam Trask’s story. He begins with Trask’s purchase of the best land in Salinas Valley, segues to the introduction of Adam’s cold, selfish wife Cathy, and then continues to the birth and journey to manhood of his two sons, Caleb and Aron. As the play opens, Adam Trask, a kind, gentle young man, is sharing with his neighbor, Samuel Hamilton, his plans for developing his farm. He introduces Hamilton to his strange, suspicious wife, Cathy. Beautiful but cruel, she refuses to even look at her two sons after they’re born (actually fathered, it should be added, by Adam’s brother, Charles). She shoots Adam in the shoulder and then runs away.
Caleb and Aron are raised by Adam and his devoted Chinese manservant, Lee. They’re led to believe their mother died when they were both babies. Caleb, dark, impulsive and mean, is the exact opposite of his twin brother Aron, who is fair, thoughtful and kind. But while Aron has always appeared to be Adam’s favorite child, Caleb continually strives to win his father’s affection. When Adam refuses the money Caleb earned to help his father through a financial loss, the humiliated boy seeks revenge. Caleb learns that Cathy, his mother, is still alive and is the madam of a high-priced house of prostitution. He takes Aron there, forcing his mother and brother to confront each other. Aron is shattered by learning what his mother has become and how physically alike they are. Aron runs away from home, lies about his age and joins the fighting forces during WWI. Upon learning that Cathy has committed suicide and his beloved Aron has been killed overseas, Adam becomes seriously ill. Lying on his deathbed, Adam forgives his son, promising him that, although Caleb believes he’s inherited his mother’s villainous side, he has the power to overcome his evil nature. Adam dies telling his son, “thou mayest.”
An original company member and co-founder of Steppenwolf, Terry Kinney directs this three hour production with class and a skill and style that enhances Steinbeck’s poetic dialogue. Beautifully orchestrated, Mr. Kinney creates powerful characters in exquisite, stage pictures, like a vast gallery of classical paintings coming to life. Walt Spangler’s scenic design is dominated by a giant tree which, as time passes, sprouts leaves, supports lanterns and becomes the focal point of the play. Portions of houses, offices and the parlor of Cathy’s brothel silently move in and out, while furniture appears from beneath the stage floor. A palette of seasonal colors light the production, thanks to the artistry of designer David Weiner; and Mara Blumenfeld’s gorgeous period costumes help delineate each character. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen have composed a sound design that incorporates original musical, adding a polish to this piece.
Familiar Steppenwolf ensemble member Tim Hopper is absolute perfection as Adam Trask. Well-suited to portray this gentle, amiable character, Mr. Hopper has played everything from a hopped-up drug addict to a violent member of the Russian mafia. But as Adam, Hopper nestles comfortably into a persona that, while it appears easy, is complex and layered. Mr. Hopper’s Trask family patriarch is reliably consistent, sensitive and honest. In what might be the highlight of an already impressive career, Kate Arrington is terrific as Cathy. Ice water flowing through her veins, Cathy cares only about herself. The way Ms. Arrington stands, sits and carries herself, the disdain with which her character looks down upon everyone else is consistent with the novel. With grace and determination, Ms. Arrington turns even arthritic pain into a strength. Although audiences never fully understand what molded Cathy’s perverse character (unless they’re familiar with Steinbeck’s novel), we are treated to a hardhearted woman for whom death becomes a release from the agony of living.
Each and every supporting player displays talent and truthfulness. Aaron Himelstein, a standout in Steppenwolf’s “Russian Transport,” is a conflicted, tortured Caleb. As the Cain character of Steinbeck’s story, Mr. Himelstein strives with all his heart and soul to earn his father’s love and respect. We feel for him wholeheartedly as he experiences hurt and rejection. Making his Steppenwolf debut, Casey Thomas Brown is exactly what Steinbeck must’ve envisioned when he wrote the character of Aron. He’s a sweet, good-looking youth, innocent and inquisitive, yet accepting of his lot in life. Stephen Park brings humor and empathy to his portrayal of Lee. As Adam’s best friend, the true keeper of the house and the individual who raises Caleb and Aron, Mr. Park’s Lee is the kindest, most generous soul in this story. Brittany Uomoleale, a breath of fresh air in Steppenwolf’s recent “Grand Concourse,” is strong, sultry and powerful as Abra, the twins’ romantic interest. As Samuel Hamilton, Francis Guinan creates a caring friend, a father figure and a good neighbor to the Trasks. In the early scenes, his Hamilton helps the audience to know and understand Adam and Cathy. Elizabeth Laidlaw, Alan Wilder and Dan Waller are all marvelous in multiple roles, with Ms. Laidlow’s characters delightfully and each completely unique. Bringing a bit of humor to the play’s sad final scenes, this actress plays a Nurse for Adam Trask who is the definition of the word, “chirpy.”
Forty years ago this excellent, Tony Awarded theatre company perfected the ensemble style of acting. Today, with Frank Galati’s excellent, moving and poetic adaptation of John Steinbeck’s epic novel, audiences will find that same excellence to be just as powerful. Under Terry Kinney’s sophisticated, sensitive direction, ten talented actors bring this literary classic to life in a way that will not only entertain and enlighten, but is bound to inspire new readers not already familiar with this great novel. Based upon the Book of Genesis, this is a production of true Biblical proportions.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 17-November 15 by Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling Audience Services at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.