Through Sun 11/11
John Steinbeck is one of America’s great authors. His realistic and imaginative writings, which contain a strong social perception, are dramatic and humorous, look at the downtrodden, and generally have everyman protagonists. Many of his 27 books, including Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, which has sold more than 14 million copies, are considered literary epics. His East of Eden has been adapted for the stage and is now being performed at Ensemble Theatre.
East of Eden harkens broadly back to the Biblical Cain and Able story. In this case, it’s the tale of twin boys, born to Adam and Cathy Trask. Shortly after the boys were birthed, Cathy, a former prostitute, abandons the family and returns to her old trade. The twins are told their mother died and are brought up by the solitary and silent Adam and his Chinese houseman.
Adam and his family move to the city, from their farm. It’s the tumultuous time leading up to World War I, a period of speculation and adjustment. Adam, in an impetuous act, attempts to develop a method of refrigerating California produce to ship to the east coast where fresh lettuce, for example, is not available during winter months. The experiment fails and he loses much of his money.
Aron, the favorite son, falls in love with Abra, a local girl, and seems destined to fulfill the dreams of his father by going to college. Caleb, the other brother, wants to gain his father’s admiration and borrows a small amount of money, speculates on a crop of beans, and makes a small fortune.
Caleb, aware of his mother’s existence, goes to see her. Afterwards, he offers his profits to Adam to make up for the refrigeration loss. When the father refuses to take the money the boy, in an act of defiance, takes the naïve Aron to see their mother. Traumatized, Aron, acting out of shock and panic enlists in the army. The refusal, act of defiance and the enlistment prove tragic for all three Trask men.
East of Eden is an ambitious novel, over 600 pages long, which has been nicely adapted by Frank Galati into an effective stage play. Though long, with three acts and with two intermissions, there is enough action and intrigue to hold the audience’s attention.
The play is well directed by Ian Wolfgang Hinz. The pacing is languid, but appropriate for the subject matter. The acting is generally of a high level. The characters are nicely etched and develop the intent and purpose of the material. The era-correct set works well for quick and effective scene changes.
Scott Miller sulks and is introspective, well developing Adam. This is a man torn by guilt, filled with self-pride, and feeling the result of rejection by his ill-selected wife. Dana Hart is effective as Sam Hamilton, Adam’s friend. Jill Levin is properly stoic as Cathy, the mother who has rejected her children and is most comfortable being a madam. Both August Scarpelli (Aron) and Kyle Huff (Caleb) have some fine moments, but sometimes fail to fully texture their performances, acting rather than reacting. Leah Smith is believable as Abra.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT East of Eden is a classic Steinbeck novel which has been adapted into an excellent stage play. The production, though long, is effective and is a theater piece well worth seeing
East of Eden runs through Sun 11/11 Friday through Sunday. For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to ensemble-theatre.org.
[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]