Say the words “East of Eden” to most people of a certain age and they will respond with two other words: James Dean. The film version of the John Steinbeck novel is one of the three movies that the iconic actor made before his low and sleek Porsche 550 Spyder plowed into a tank-like Ford sedan making a left turn in front of Dean on a California highway in 1955.
But there’s a lot more to this work than Dean’s mesmerizing performance, and that is explored in this stage adaptation by Frank Galati. Watching this three-act play slowly unfold, one is reminded that the film only covered the final chapters of the novel. In all those other pages, Dean’s character Cal, his brother Aron, and their parents Adam and mother Cathy (later “Kate”) had their personas skillfully developed through flashbacks and other techniques.
It all works splendidly as a book, but on the Ensemble stage the story often feels forced and rushed. It begins quite promisingly when Sam Hamilton and Adam Trask, two California farmers at the turn of the 20thcentury, are chatting about the best way to locate water on their properties. As Sam, Dana Hart exudes a homey wisdom mixed with some kind of ethereal power, and it’s a damn shame his character never reappears after the opening scene.
On the other hand Adam, who is portrayed with great empathy by Scott Miller, is the linchpin of this story. His relationships with his twin sons, Cathy, and his Chinese houseboy Lee (Joey Cayabyab) cover a lot of ground as we see the boys grow from boyhood into two very different sorts of men. Aron (August Scarpelli) is sweet and caring, especially towards his girlfriend Abra (effectively played by Leah Smith), but Cal is hard-edged, taking after his amoral mother who left Adam with the infants and created a new life for herself as the blackmailing madam of a whorehouse in the big city.
This sprawling yarn begs for strong characterizations, but some of the key roles do not land with the proper authority. As Cathy, who renames herself Kate in her new life, Jill Levin just seems irritated most of the time, not verging on mythically evil. And Kyle Huff as Cal is weirdly without affect for most of the play. Indeed, in the climactic scene where Cal confronts his mother in her lair, the words seem weak and the conflict perfunctory.
Perhaps this has something to do with the set and lighting design by Ian Wolfgang Hinz, who also directs. All the scenes are played on stark sets with plank floors, which is appropriate except for Kate’s room, which should reek of sensuality and decadence. Instead, it looks like the manager’s office in a low-cost funeral home, with Kate dressed in all black.
Also, one wonders where the projections are, which Hinz has used to excellent effect in other productions. But there are no grand vistas of the lush Salinas Valley, just some mood lights thrown onto backing flats here and there.
Ensemble is to be applauded for taking on a show this complicated, which is a big lift for a small theater. It’s the kind of thing they often do well. But this time around, the well’s run a bit dry.
East of Eden
Through November 11 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org.