East of Eden — Steppenwolf Theater (11/13/15)

Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is a four-character affair.  Yes, the play includes six additional actors performing 10 additional roles, but the spotlight stays focused on the dysfunctional Trask family and their biblical fall from grace.

East of Eden
Adam (Tim Hopper) will soon learn that he is powerless to stop Cathy (Kate Arrington) from leaving.

Cathy Trask (Kate Arrington) emerges so thoroughly as the play’s most intriguing character that the development of her twin sons, which dominates the second act, is suspenseful only in building toward their inevitable meetings with their mother.  Cathy’s depth derives from her position on the spectrum of good vs. evil.  She is not quite the Devil, but she is only one small notch to the right.  Galati hits perfection in adapting Cathy for the stage by granting her the smallest possible amount of humanity required to maintain her presence as a person rather than as a symbol.

In the first act, while giving birth to her sons, Cathy bites the doctor during the delivery.  Given the title East of Eden and its allusion to the fall of man, Cathy is at once both Eve and the serpent.  Soon after, recognizing her complete lack of interest for motherhood, Cathy attempts to walk out on her husband Adam (Tim Hopper) and her still unnamed sons:

“The babies—” Adam begins to ask.

“Throw them in one of your wells,” she replies with a coldness derived from apathy more than hatred.  This is just one example of dialogue that explores Cathy’s distance from any emotions resembling compassion.  Cathy ages and becomes arthritic during the second and third acts (credit some fantastic make-up work during this process), but her defiance toward any actions that are not purely self-motivated rarely wavers.

Tim Hopper is admirable as Adam, but his mild-mannered, altruistic character seems bland when he is onstage without his wife’s counterbalance—like eating a rice cake while hot pepper seeds are still in your mouth.  Of the twins Aaron (Casey Thomas Brown) and Caleb (Aaron Himelstein), Caleb quickly develops into the more dominant character.  He struggles with his father’s preference for Aaron and with his fear that his mother’s evil is present within him.

East of Eden 2
Aaron Himelstein (Caleb) and Casey Thomas Brown (Aron) as brothers predestined to follow in the path set by Cain and Abel.

The scene when the teenaged Caleb finally confronts his mother is disappointingly short.  Taking place in the office where his mother rules as the proprietor of a house of prostitution, the clash of those two characters and all of their deficiencies carries enough dramatic potential to fill an entire one-act play, regardless of the several hundred pages that fill the rest of the novel.  The scene ends once Caleb realizes that his mother will not offer any answers for his own dilemmas.

Adapting a novel of the epic length of East of Eden is a challenge.  Galati must simultaneously please the purists, who enjoy every detail of the novel in its entirety, and please those exploring the work for a first time.  Galati wisely cut most of Hamilton family and significant backstories from Adam and Cathy to focus on the later difficulties of the Trasks, but even with a three-hour running time the good were not able to compete with the evil.

East of Eden — Steppenwolf Theater (11/13/15)

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