In Frank Galati's talky new Steinbeck adaptation for Steppenwolf, everything interesting seems to happen offstage.
Frank Galati’s 1988 stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath did much to burnish the then-teenage Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s reputation, transferring to Broadway in 1990 and winning the Tony Award for best play. I didn’t see that production (I wasn’t yet a teenager myself), but Galati’s Grapes will get a new staging later this season at the Gift Theatre. Maybe after I see that show I’ll be better able to understand what went wrong with Galati’s stiffly upholstered, tedious new adaptation of Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
Galati’s version of Steinbeck’s Cain-and-Abel allegory, staged by Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney, begins with Adam Trask (Tim Hopper) staking out his new property near Salinas, California (Steinbeck’s own home) and telling a friend, Samuel Hamilton (Francis Guinan), how his wife, Cathy (a woefully miscast Kate Arrington) showed up on his doorstep caked in mud and blood. We never find out the backstory there, nor do we learn how the family’s Chinese manservant Lee (Stephen Park) came to them, even though he becomes a major figure in their lives.
Almost as soon as Cathy gives birth to fraternal twin boys, she takes off, shooting her husband when he tries to stand in her way. After the first of Galati’s two intermissions, the boys are in adolescence and named Caleb (Aaron Himelstein) and Aron (Casey Thomas Brown).
Longtime Steppenwolf ensemble member Alan Wilder shows up for one of two inconsequential scenes as the father of Abra (Brittany Uomoleale), who eventually becomes the love interest for both brothers but barely registers here. (Wilder will return for two lines as a doctor near the end of Act III.)
Arrington plays Cathy, who goes on to become a brothel owner even as her boys think her dead, with an odd vocal affectation that’s apparently meant to convey her sociopathy; her character’s entire bizarre arc is written off here to her being “mean.” Dan Waller gets a pair of stultifying scenes as Sam Hamilton’s son in which he gets to talk about vegetable refrigeration and going into business with a 17-year-old boy.
But then nothing makes any evident sense in this play. Conflicts are declared without ever being demonstrated: We get to Act III and Caleb is moping about his father favoring Aron, though we’ve not seen any such indication; Abra declares her romantic feelings have switched from Aron to Cal with nothing presented onstage to suggest as much. It’s as if 90 percent of the physical and emotional action in Steinbeck’s novel takes place offstage. Steinbeck alluded with a heavy hand to the sin of Cain killing Abel, but Galati’s adaptation commits the cardinal sin of boring its audience to death.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By John Steinbeck. Adapted by Frank Galati. Directed by Terry Kinney. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs; two intermissions.