Watch as John Steinbeck’s decidedly tragic 20th century Biblical story, “East of Eden,” unspools on the stage of Steppenwolf Theatre — the opening salvo in the company’s 40th anniversary season — and you will witness the implosion of one of the more feverishly emotional, deeply dysfunctional families on the American literary landscape.
‘EAST OF EDEN’
When: Through Nov. 15
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Tickets: $20 – $89
Info: (312) 335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org
Run time: 3 hours, with two intermissions
And as you become ensnared in the story’s tangled web of love and loathing, secrets and truth, strength and weakness, optimism and despair, and, above all, in its intense wrestling match between the power of genetic destiny versus that of free will, you might well start to believe that the blazing wildfires and unrelenting drought now afflicting California is a lingering catharsis — a radical contemporary cleansing of the Trask family’s enduring legacy.
Intense? Yes it is. And melodramatic, too, at times. Steinbeck’s novel, in a world premiere adaptation by Frank Galati, is an intriguing combination of Old Testament severity and new-fangled Freudian analysis, with a nature-versus-nurture overlay. A story of the catastrophic relationship between a man who loved blindly, and a woman incapable of loving anyone — and of a father whose fraternal twins are re-imagined takes on Cain and Abel — “East of Eden” is horrifying and only somewhat redemptive.
Set between 1900 and 1918 in California’s Salinas Valley, a lush agricultural area, “East of Eden” begins as Adam Trask (Tim Hopper), surveys his ranch and consults Samuel Hamilton (a warm and wily Francis Guinan), an older and wiser neighbor with a mystical edge. Trask wants to prosper and create an Eden-like home for Cathy (Kate Arrington, whose breathtakingly perverse, altogether chilling performance is the best of her career), the beautiful, strange and very pregnant wife he adores. A decent man, but blind to people’s true character, Adam has loved Cathy ever since she crawled up on his family’s doorstep as a very young and clearly abused girl. Now, a grown woman who seems to be missing some crucial human quality, she is repulsed by his love for her. And Hopper ideally captures a man who is so relentlessly guileless and well-meaning that he is irritating in his passivity.
Immediately after giving birth to fraternal twins — Caleb (Aaron Himelstein) and Aron (Casey Thomas Brown) — Cathy shoots, but does not kill, her husband, and disappears. The brothers, who are raised by the Trasks’ Chinese housekeeper, Lee (Stephen Park, who is saddled with most of the play’s action-slowing, heavily speechifying sections), love each other, but compete for their father’s approval. Only as teenagers do they learn that their mother is not dead at all, but runs a high-end brothel not far from the Trasks’ ranch. And it is there that she can easily blackmail her clients — powerful men with a taste for humiliating sex.
Almost everyone in this story has a dual nature. And almost everyone destroys the thing they love most.
Aron, favored by his father, falls into a puppy love/substitute mother relationship with Abra Bacon (Brittany Uomoleale, who plays beautifully with Brown). The sophisticated, city-bred daughter of a businessman (Alan Wilder), and his elegant wife (Elizabeth Laidlaw, who deftly plays three small but very different roles), Abra is more drawn to Caleb, the angrier and in many ways more insightful of the two brothers, whose entrepreneurial spirit is recognized by another businessman, Hamilton’s son, Will (Dan Waller, also excellent in multiple roles), as America’s involvement in World War I looms.
“East of Eden” has been directed with a mix of hot-and-cold intensity by Terry Kinney, a Steppenwolf co-founder (with Jeff Perry and Gary Sinise), and the star of Galati’s epic Tony Award-winning 1988 production of “The Grapes of Wrath” in which Guinan, Hopper and Wilder also appeared. But it can also feel sluggish at times, with too many long literary passages that work in a novel but not on the stage.
Walt Spangler’s set, anchored by a giant tree whose trunk is tightly bound in rope, allows for fluid shifts of place, from ranch to (best of all) an evil green bordello, as do live music interludes (music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen) played by Ben Melsky (harp) and Kyra Saltman (cello). Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes for Arrington are sublime. And, as is often the case, the story’s most demonic creature, Cathy Trask, is the one who grabs hold of the imagination, with Arrington’s harrowing transformation into an old, arthritic crone beyond harrowing.