The Western Stage’s “East of Eden” is an inspiring act of theatrical chutzpah , particularly for a company well removed from any large metropolitan center. Its nine full hours (excluding two meal breaks) lay out John Steinbeck’s epic 1952 novel withclarity, respect and much inventive staging.
Those virtues make for an impressive if undeniably lengthy viewing experience. But in its current form (revised and re-staged from a 1992 premiere) , Alan Cook’s honorable stage adaptation probably won’t tempt many other companies to duplicate such Herculean effort.
The three-play cycle commences in 1862 with “The Chain Is Forged.” Connecticut farmer Cyrus Trask survives a short, inglorious Civil War military service, returning with gonorrhea, which he passes on to his first wife, leading to her suicide. Quickly re-wed, Cyrus soon boasts one son from each marriage, raising both with boot-camp-like severity that reflects his bluffing rise to prominence as a war hero-cum-military authority.
This harsh upbringing results in Steinbeck’s Cain-and-Abel theme: Sensitive young Adam and scrappier Charles are forever pitted against one another, their filial love poisoned by competitive animosity.
Charles stays to toll the stony soil. After 13 years’ military service and globe-trotting, Adam returns home and discovers beauteous Cathy — a”bad penny” sociopath. Despite his brother’s protests, love-struck Adam marries the girl. In return she drugs him and consummates their wedding night with jealous Charles.
In “The Unrelenting Past,” unknowing Adam and his reluctant wife move to California’s Salinas Valley. Cathy gives birth to twin sons (possibly fathered by Charles) and immediately rejects them, shoots her husband and runs away to a nearby brothel. Meanwhile, sons Aron and Caleb grow up thinking their mother is dead.
Discovery of the latter’s existence pivots “The Chain Is Broken,” which takes matters up through World War I years. Teenaged Aron and Caleb are locked into the same cycle as prior brothers, each thinking the other has a well-intentioned but imperfect father’s superior regard.
The play’s lack of focus lends “East of Eden” a rambling quality that works less well onstage than on the page. We miss the primal sibling-rivalry dynamic between Adam and Charles after the first third, when latter disappears. Cathy fascinates as a destructive yet empathetic monster. Still, she too often operates outside the central narrative.
Cook might well have re-cast this saga in more theatrically narrowed terms. (Elia Kazan’s famous 1955 film version with Julie Harris and James Dean did this by reducing the tale to Steinbeck’s final chapters.) But as a faithful-to-source-material mission, his efforts can’t be faulted: The script juggles multiple plot strands with humor, dexterity and (mostly) concision. Director Tom Humphrey keeps the canvas stimulating as a series of ever-moving tableaux, aided to no end by Derek Duarte’s fine lighting. With stage wings open to view, some 50 cast members are onstage throughout, choreographed to frequently amusing, evocative chorus effect by Kristen Kusanovich, associate director of staging and movement.
More problematic is decision to multicast the leading roles. At first the players (portraying Trask figures at successive ages) compellingly suggest how the past haunts each character. But the device soon tires, with actors rotely aping one another’s movements to no discernible point.
The semi-pro cast is uneven but competent on the whole. Standouts are James Farmer as an angry Cal No. 2, Candace Reid’s amoral young Cathy, Rollie Dick’s warmly comic Sam and David Johann as a Lee whose pidgin-English affect masks profound insight.
Robert Brill’s earth-toned scenic design — featuring a huge, moveable “wheel” that comes to distill the Trasks’ full-circle saga — is superb, the costumes handsome, live music/choral direction sparing but effective.
“East of Eden” rates as a triumph of craft for the Western Stage. Yet diminishing returns over the course of these nine hours suggest Steinbeck’s late great work may be less than ideal stage material that needs freer re-sculpting for optimal translation.