Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre opened its 40th season with the world premiere of John Steinbeck's East of Eden adapted for the stage by two-time Tony winner Frank Galati (The Grapes of Wrath) and directed by Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney. Billed as "an American epic, grand in scope yet deeply personal, that asks if it is possible to escape the mistakes of previous generations and choose your own course," this production continued the theatre's commitment to the works of John Steinbeck. Called by the critics a "stage masterpiece" and "a significant achievement" with "extraordinary performances," East of Eden is Steppenwolf's third Steinbeck production in the past thirty years and it once again displayed this ensemble's legendary creative horsepower.
Stay Thirsty Magazine was privileged to visit with Frank Galati when he was in Chicago to talk about everything from East of Eden to John Steinbeck – the writer and the man – to ensemble theatre in America.
STAY THIRSTY: John Steinbeck published his novel, East of Eden, sixty-three years ago in September 1952. It became an instant bestseller in spite of being unsuccessfully received by the critics. What is it about this novel that attracted you to adapt it to the stage and why do you feel that it will resonate with today's theatre-going audiences?
FRANK GALATI: East of Eden, like The Grapes of Wrath, is a story about family. Most stories are. Steinbeck believed there was only one great story with countless versions. East of Eden is Steinbeck's most personal book and most replete. "I want to put everything in it, EVERYTHING." he said. He himself plays a bit part in the saga, as does his family home and his hometown, Salinas, California. Steinbeck uses the template of The Book of Genesis and the story of Cain and Able to trace his narrative of two large families of the Salinas Valley: one family, the Trasks, is fiction, the other family, the Hamiltons, is non-fiction. Samuel Hamilton, the sagacious patriarch of the valley, is John Steinbeck's grandfather. I didn't know any of this years ago when I first read East of Eden but I think I sensed that the tangled lives and destinies of these two clans was born of real blood and bone and elevated to the level of myth. After working for a very long time on the Joads and their journey to the so-called "promised land" I finally turned to the Land of Nod, which is on the east of Eden, where Cain would live out his days with the scar of God on his forehead. That mark is not to identify Cain as the first murderer but to protect him from harm because God wants his creatures to remember that they are all sons and daughters of Cain and that murder may breed in any human heart. If The Grapes of Wrath is epic then East of Eden is mythic. In a sense the saga of the Joads is a sweeping narrative that moves from East to West, to the regions of darkness and despair, but East of Eden unfolds mostly in the West and does not sweep across the boards. It goes underneath them, it digs deep, like Sam Hamilton's wells, looking for the dark truth in the human heart but also the flickering light of forgiveness and redemption. I chose to do East of Eden, finally, because I was looking for forgiveness and possible redemption myself.
STAY THIRSTY: Steinbeck wrote in his journal about East of Eden: "The book does move along little by little. And it never moves back, that's one thing about it. It lacks tension and that is exactly what I wanted and intended it to do." At over 600 pages the book reveals a vast and complex story of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, in the Salinas Valley in California just as World War I was about to break out. How did you tackle distilling this huge story into a compelling play?
FRANK GALATI: My job in adapting a work of fiction for the stage is to find the play hiding in the novel. For me the imperative drama is the story of the Trask family. The Hamilton who is central to the life and destiny of that family is Samuel Hamilton and the spiritual guide for that family is Lee the Chinese houseman. It's the Cain and Able story that must be the focus of the stage play. A father who loves one son above the other. A mother who is the apotheosis of fear and malice. Two brothers most unlike in dignity. The fair angel beloved of his father is Abel, the dark needy one is Cain. The results will not be good. But the stage play must end as the novel does with the death of the father, following the mother's suicide, and the legacy of Cain, the agent of his brother's death, who has learned, as we have, that he has a choice. That's the play Steinbeck has embedded in his sprawling novel.
STAY THIRSTY: East of Eden is Steppenwolf's third Steinbeck production. The 1981 production of Of Mice and Men was directed by Terry Kinney and starred ensemble members Joan Allen, John Mahoney, John Malkovich, Jeff Perry, Gary Sinise and Rick Snyder. The 1988 production of The Grapes of Wrath was directed by you and starred, among others, Terry Kinney, Gary Sinise, Francis Guinan, Tim Hopper and Alan Wilder. That production subsequently went on to Broadway and earned two Tony Awards for you for Best Play and Best Director. East of Eden reunites Steppenwolf ensemble members Galati, Kinney, Guinan, Hopper and Wilder who were all part of the 1988 Tony-winning production of The Grapes of Wrath. How does it feel "getting the band back together" to work on another Steinbeck production after almost thirty years?
FRANK GALATI: "Getting the band back together again after all these years" is a total blast and a joy. We have so much fun together and we are proud of what we have been able to do at Steppenwolf. We have a deep affection for Steinbeck and also a deep trust in him. His widow, Elaine, became a good friend when we were developing Grapes. She was a Texas Cheer Leader and we loved her. To be able to live in the world that her husband created when they were first married is uncanny. They were living in New York City and John Steinbeck wrote for eleven months with a pencil and in long-hand, five days a week, six or seven hours a day from January to November! And Mrs. Steinbeck, Elaine, was his first reader. She read every page. It's hard for me to grasp that I knew her and once held her hand.
STAY THIRSTY: Why do you think the works of John Steinbeck endure from one generation to the next?
FRANK GALATI: The works of John Steinbeck endure because he explored what Faulkner called "the verities of the heart." Yes, Steinbeck was an activist and a champion of the migrant poor, but he was a writer whose ability to create real characters in real and often tragic actions puts him on the level of Eugene O'Neil. He is never weepy. When you see his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize on YouTube you see how plainspoken, blunt and taciturn he was. He was an artist, a man of courage, and a deeply generous heart. That's why he endures.
STAY THIRSTY: Steppenwolf Theatre is celebrating its 40th Anniversary this season as America's premier ensemble theatre. During those years ensemble members and productions have won many Tony Awards and the theatre was awarded the National Medal of Arts. How important is ensemble theatre today and what role does it play in fostering of new work?
FRANK GALATI: Ensemble theatre is extremely important today and in the future. Theatre is above all a collective art. It must be made by a group. Would we not say the same of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra? Each player, each artist, contributes to the music-making. And Chicagoans know that an ensemble is the creation of a family that plays. Harmony and dissonance. Light and dark. We step into these sensory zones together for a time. And being together, for the audience as well as for the ensemble, is one way of getting warm together against the chill outside.
Photographs Courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre Company