While John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath have historically been on high school reading lists for decades, one of the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner’s more ambitious works, East of Eden, is what the author considered his magnum opus.
The 1952 book was made into a movie starring James Dean, though only the events of the second half of the novel were depicted, and in 2015, Frank Galati adapted the book into an epic American play.
The story follows Adam Trask, escaping a turbulent past, and looking to start things anew in California’s Salinas Valley. He and his wife Kate find solace on a farm and the couple welcome twins Caleb and Aaron. But just when things start to appear safe, sibling rivalry, old family history and the impending World War threaten their happy life.
East of Eden has always been a particular favorite of NextStop Theatre’s producing artistic director Evan Hoffmann, and he will be directing Steinbeck’s re-imagining of the saga of Adam and Eve, and their sons Cain and Abel.
“East of Eden has been my favorite novel since I first read it nearly 20 years ago. I think that it had such a profound effect on me because it so beautifully (and effortlessly) matches up big ideas with simple truths,” Hoffmann says. “Complex and fascinating characters with our most basic desires as human beings. I have never read anything else that accomplished that juxtaposition so perfectly. I can see the good in each character and I can very personally relate to their flaws, and perhaps more importantly, the struggle they each deal with to overcome those flaws.”
He cites Steinbeck’s line in chapter 34, which reads “I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
“I guess I just agree,” Hoffmann says.
Hoffmann’s made no secret of his affection for the novel to his cast.
Nina Marti, who plays Abra and Mrs. Bacon in the play, enjoys acting for a director who brings so much enthusiasm and is so invested in the story. And while he’s made no secret for his love of the novel, he’s made it clear from the beginning of rehearsals that Steinbeck may have written it, but it’s up to the actors to interpret it, with guidance from him of course.
East of Eden
at NextStop Theatre
October 25 – November 18, 2018
Details and tickets
“One of my favorite things about working with Evan is he’s always making time and space and room to have a conversation,” she says. “He’s not married to any particular vision of a character or the narrative. He has strong opinions and will fight for them, but he’s open to having that conversation and building these characters. He encourages discussion and I’ve really appreciated that part of this process.”
Zach Brewster-Geisz, who plays Adam,, agrees. “He is bringing a lot of passion from the book to this play. His skill in creating his own work and allowing us to create our interpretation of the characters. That freedom is very satisfying.”
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Although neither Brewster-Geisz or Marti had known much about East of Eden—neither had read the book before getting their roles—both were immediately attracted to the story.
“The novel is so wide in scope and it takes place in a time that feels very removed from us, but the feelings and journeys these characters go through are very much relevant today,” Marti says. “There are so many characters I feel our audience will relate to in one way or another, whether they see it through the eyes of being parents or children or navigating their own mortality. Even though the setting is so far in the past, in a place very foreign to us, all those things are very relevant today.”
Brewster-Geisz allows that it does present something of a challenge.
“East of Eden is not only a classic, but we have to bring it alive to our audiences,” he says. “Whether people have read the book or seen the James Dean interpretation, they might come in with a certain preconception, and we have to make it alive for them and that’s what drew me in.
“From the first few pages, I remember turning to my wife and saying, “Holy cow, this is really good.’ I had read the Grapes of Wrath in high school, but that was my only connection to Steinbeck up until this point,” he says. “I still haven’t seen the movie, but I look forward to checking that out after this production closes because I don’t want someone else’s performance to imprint on mine.”
Marti shares she’s more a fan of audio books and started listening to East of Eden once rehearsals started.
“One thing I found surprising is I didn’t expect to be able to enjoy it or be able to follow it because it’s not the type of storytelling I usually gravitate to,” she says. “There were so many characters to follow, and so many names, but it was really interesting. Steinbeck has a really great way of grounding you in this world and helping you connect with each one and follow their story. I kept on going back to it and listening to certain parts so I knew where things were headed and I was very eager to do this.”
Although the set is very minimal, Brewster-Geisz says the fact that audience members are never more than 10 or 15 feet away from the stage really adds a strong element to the production, as it allows them to focus on the characters and not worry about the fireworks and so forth.
Marti agrees. “I think the setting itself is great environment and Evan (who is also the set designer) has done a wonderful job with that as well. There’s such small intimate moments that could easily get lost, which is why this space works so well.”
The play also features Kari Ginsburg, Jacob Yeh, John Sygar, Annie Ottati, Reginald Richard,
Alana Sharp, Nahm Darr, William Price, Lorenzo Aten and Eva Jaber.
“As actors, we are storytellers, and this is not only one of the great American stories, it goes back to the original Biblical story,” Brewster-Geisz says.
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