East Of Eden, John Steinbeck's epic tale of the Trask family between the Civil War and World War I, has been adapted for the stage by North Carolina playwright, Alan Cook. The resulting production, divided into two parts ("Pillars Of Fire" and "Breaking The Chain"), opened Oct. 23, at Actors Theatre Of Louisville.
The largest production in the theatre's history, Eden is the core of the 12th annual Brown-Forman Classics In Context Festival, which this year is dedicated to "Steinbeck on Stage & Film." Steinbeck experts will lecture at the festival, Elaine Anderson Steinbeck will join a panel discussion, and three films based on Steinbeck's novels will be shown. There'll also be an exhibit, curated by Susan Shillinglaw, director of the Steinbeck Research Center, in the theatre's main lobby throughout the five-week festival.
Jon Jory and Frazier W. Marsh are co-directing the theatrical epic, which took Alan Cook seven years to complete. Eden was first staged by Western Stage Company in Salinas, CA, 1992. Cook's play tells the complete story in the novel -- as opposed to the 1955 James Dean film, which only covered the final third.
In "Pillars Of Fire," brothers Charles and Adam Trask compete for their father's love and quarrel over Adam's wife-to-be, Cathy. She and Adam have twins, but the marriage doesn't go well. In "Breaking The Chain" she leaves, and Adam tells the boys she died, rather than admit the truth -- she's working in a whorehouse. Both parts, each of which is meant to stand alone, are three hours.
The productions include more than 135 costumes and 80 pieces of furniture. It is also the first time since the 1994 renovation of the Pamela Brown auditorium that the full depth (up to 30 feet) of the stage will be used. Asked about the trimming of East Of Eden from three parts to two, author Alan Cook noted that the longer version was more specifically tailored for Salinas, Steinbeck's home base. "What I cut was a lot of the lyricism, and ambiance and subplots," Cook told Playbill On-Line. "That was more important in Salinas because this was THEIR valley, and these were people they recognized."
Citing Brecht's narrative-driven epics as an influence on his dramaturgy, Cook confessed to not having seen Kentucky Cycle or Angels In America. So why an epic? "In giving Louisville the right to adapt the material, the Steinbeck Estate really wanted to make sure we did the whole book, not just part (like the movie)."
To Cook, the theme of his East Of Eden has to do with individual responsibility, with breaking the fatal cycle that goes back to the book of Genesis -- rejection, followed by revenge, which brings on guilt. "Steinbeck says yes, you CAN break the cycle, with will and effort. He's also strong on parental themes, on functional and dysfunctional families. I don't want to use the phrase `family values' because it's so cliche these days, but that really is a strong part of it."
The most celebrated recent adaptation of a Steinbeck novel came in 1990, when Frank Galati and the Steppenwolf company of Chicago brought their 1988 production of The Grapes Of Wrath to Broadway, where it won the Best Play Tony Award.
The Brown-Forman Classics In Context Festival, funded by the Brown Forman Corporation and the N.E.A., "takes a broad look at its topic each year by combining a theatrical production with historical fact, films, lectures and exhibits."
John Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Grapes Of Wrath," a Drama Critics Circle Award for his dramatic adaptation of his own "Of Mice And Men," and a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Of 1952's "East Of Eden" he wrote, "It must contain all in the world I know and have everything in it of which I am capable -- all styles, all techniques, all poetry -- and it must have a great deal of laughter."
James Seacat, director of public relations and marketing for the Actors Theatre of Louisville, noted that when East Of Eden played at Western Stage, it was in three parts, and that Cook has actually pared the piece down for its six-hour, two-part staging in Kentucky. "Literary Manager Michael Bigelow Dixon went to see the show in California," Seacat remembers, "and he came back very excited about it."
Asked about comparisons, not only to Grapes Of Wrath but to Angels In America and The Kentucky Cycle, Seacat replied, "Actually, the one we really compare it to around here is Nicholas Nickleby."
The show's 36 scheduled performances include six weekend "Immersion Days," in which part one is a matinee and part two runs the same evening, (Nov. 9, 10, 16, 17, 20, and 23). The restaurant at Actors Theatre will be open between performances for dining. For tickets ($16-33) and information call (502) 584-1205.
-- By Blair Glaser & David Lefkowitz