Tim Hopper, Aaron Himelstein, Casey Thomas Brown, and Brittany Uomoleale Credit: Michael Brosilow

Our text today, sisters and brothers, is from Genesis 4: the story of humanity’s first murder. Adam and Eve’s elder son, Cain, was a farmer and their younger one, Abel, a shepherd. Both brought offerings to God, but when He rejected Cain’s offering, Cain became angry. Unable to kill God, he killed Abel instead.

And there you have it. There’s no more iconic story, nor one that gets played out more frequently, in life as in art.

In 1952 John Steinbeck published his version of it as East of Eden—the title referring to the location of the land of Nod, where Cain settled after God punished him by letting him live. Now Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of the novel is receiving an awkward if fitfully compelling world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Set during the first two decades of the 20th century, East of Eden tells the tale of the doomed Trask clan, Adam and Cathy and Caleb and Aron. Would-be patriarch Adam buys a farm in California’s Salinas Valley, hoping to raise alfalfa and children. He dotes on wife Cathy but that’s only because he doesn’t understand that she’s more of a Lilith than an Eve. He’s therefore awfully surprised when she gets up from bed after delivering twin boys, packs her bag, and announces her departure. When he blocks her way, she shoots him in the arm.

Needless to say, Adam isn’t the same after that. In his despondency he lets both the farm and his boys grow wild. If not for Lee, the family’s Chinese houseman and default Eve, all would be lost. Fair-haired Aron matures into a sweet-natured naif. Caleb is cunning and fierce. Serial doter that he is, Adam prefers Aron.

Adam pretends that Cathy is dead. But in fact she’s only moved down the road to the city of Salinas, where she’s built herself a successful career as a bawd with a sideline in blackmail. When Caleb finds out the truth, the elements are all present for a cataclysm of literally biblical proportions.

Galati was at the Chicago Magazine Cultural Festival last Saturday, talking about East of Eden in contrast to The Grapes of Wrath, which he adapted and directed for Steppenwolf back in 1988. Grapes, he said, is epic, sprawling from dust-bowl Oklahoma to the false paradise of California and subjecting its truckload of landless farmers to all kinds of brutality and saintliness along the way. East of Eden Galati called “mythic,” by which he seemed to mean that it’s more hermetic in nature. Frankly allegorical. Spare in terms of incident, yet dense with primal resonances.

I think he made sense. But I also think East of Eden‘s mythic quality is precisely what hobbles this production.

Picaresque and full of adventures, Grapes of Wrath had an inherent sense of spectacle that Galati capitalized on with such coups de theatre as an onstage truck, real-water rain, and an honest-to-God swimming hole. East of Eden provides much less in the way of scenic changes, its dialogue can get abstract, and its characters pull away from psychology toward the archetypal. It’s essentially a morality play, and neither Galati nor director Terry Kinney has figured out how to give it momentum. At the Chicago magazine event Galati said a drama must go “in and in and in and in.” This one starts and stops, its stand-and-deliver blocking creating big expanses of stasis.

Oddly, Steinbeck’s novel suggests a solution by employing a narrator—a conceit that, onstage, might allow for more freedom within scenes. Though Galati makes gestures in that direction, he doesn’t try it full out.

Still, there are some extraordinary performances, especially among the darker roles. Kate Arrington keeps Cathy unnervingly inscrutable for two full acts, allowing just enough disclosure as she builds toward her final moment. Aaron Himelstein presents both the dynamism and suffering of self-knowledge as Caleb. Brittany Uomoleale and Francis Guinan constitute rare oases of delight in supporting roles. I was particularly sorry when Guinan’s Sam Hamilton, a kind of Irish Zen master, dropped from the narrative.  v