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Chicago by John Olson

East of Eden
Steppenwolf Theatre

Also see John's review of Disgraced

Casey Thomas Brown (front) and Aaron Himelstein
The classics of John Steinbeck have been golden for Steppenwolf over its 41-year history. Their 1981 Of Mice and Men featured some the company's most famous members, including John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Jeff Perry, Rick Snyder, and John Mahoney, in a production directed by Terry Kinney. Sinise directed a 1992 film version with a screenplay by Horton Foote, no less, and starring himself and Malkovich. Ensemble member (and now artistic director) Anna D. Shapiro directed the star-laden 2014 Broadway production with James Franco and Chris O'Dowd. The company made its first splash on the national scene when ensemble member Frank Galati adapted The Grapes of Wrath for the stage and directed a production featuring Lois Smith, Robert Breuler, Kathryn Erbe, Kinney, and Sinise. Galati is back as director and adapter of East of Eden, the last remaining of Steinbeck's "big three" to be adapted for the stage, and the Chicago Tribune has reported that the Steinbeck estate approached Steppenwolf and Galati to do it. While it seems unlikely to strike the same sort of gold as Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath, it's a lovely and moving piece.

Like Steppenwolf's earlier Steinbeck-sourced plays, East of Eden is a showcase for a good number of its ensemble members, though the casting may be off-putting to those who are familiar with some of the actors or who have memories of Elia Kazan's 1955 film version. Here, Tim Hopper plays Adam Trask, the farmer who, estranged from his Connecticut family, has relocated to Salinas, California, with prostitute Cathy (Kate Arrington) whom Adam and his brother had rescued from a savage beating. Adam fails to acknowledge the hardness of Cathy's heart. On their arrival in California, Cathy is pregnant, but after she gives birth to twin boys, she abandons the family, leaving Adam and his Chinese-American servant Lee to raise the boys. Hopper, who so frequently does comic roles at Steppenwolf, makes an exceptionally vulnerable and thoughtful Adam—and one different from the stoic Raymond Massey of the film. As Cathy, Kate Arrington, often cast as mildly ditzy but likable and sexy young women, twists that persona into a different shape here. Cathy is thoroughly unlikable—so hardened by the abuse she experienced earlier in life that she can't accept Adam's goodness or even the entirely unearned love offered by one of her sons when he eventually tracks her down running a nearby brothel. More predictably, Steppenwolf's Francis Guinan is completely charming as the kindly and wise Samuel Hamilton, the Salinas native who sells Adam his farm and welcomes him to the community; and Alan Wilder submerges himself in the smaller character roles of Dr. Murphy and Mr. Bacon.

The 1955 film version of East of Eden was the first major film role of James Dean, who played Cal Trask, the more troubled of Adam's twin sons. Aaron Himelstein, who plays Cal here, will not and should not be compared to Dean. His presence is not that of the tragic teen angel, doomed but somehow special and larger than life. Himelstein's Caleb (Cal) seems a kid who could easily fade into the background when compared to his golden boy brother Aron (Casey Thomas Brown). It's a controlled and subtle performance, with none of the histrionics we may remember from James Dean's portrayal. Brittany Uomoleale, who most recently played a troubled teen in Steppenwolf's Grand Concourse, is a strong and sweet Abra Bacon, love interest to both (the role played on screen by Julie Harris). Only Stephen Park as the servant Lee seems to flounder in a role that requires him to grow from the nearly silent Chinese servant to an assimilated American with a significant role and influence in the family.

Production values plus an original musical score by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen take us into the world of inland California of the World War I era. Walt Spangler's simple but effective set gives a sense of isolation—first a physical isolation on the farm, then an emotional one after the Trasks move into the city. Mara Blumenfeld's costumes have an earthy authenticity to them, suggestive of the relatively simple lifestyles led by these characters.

In spite of the best efforts of all involved, though, East of Eden seems a more complex, more difficult story to bring to the stage than Of Mice and Men. The source novel is much longer (though like the East of Eden film, Galati's adaptation covers only the second half of the novel) and as a result this script feels more plot heavy and less character driven. I found myself struggling to connect to the characters, well-played as they are under Terry Kinney's direction. The ending, which provides a resolution for Caleb's lifelong quest to connect with his father, should be cathartic, but Galati's script doesn't spend enough time with Caleb to give us that investment.

Even so, this production brings us into the world of East of Eden, providing good samples of Steinbeck's prose and clearly showing his novel's theme of humanity's battle to defeat the original sin within us all. It's a good introduction to the novel for those who may want to explore it further, and I suppose, a decent substitute for those who prefer to get their Steinbeck via the stage.

East of Eden will play Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago; through November 15, 2015. Ticket info is available at or by phone at 312-335-1650.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson

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