Tim Hopper (Adam Trask), Stephen Park (Lee), and Francis Guinan (Samuel Hamilton) in the naming scene in Steppenwolf's new production of East of Eden. Credit: Michael Brosilow

John Steinbeck intended East of Eden to be the book of his life. He planned to set down the story of his own personal origins for his two sons, and he meant that both literally and cosmically. Originally he called the book My Valley, and he intended it to unfold in alternating chapters that cut between his mother’s family, the Hamiltons, who arrived in California’s Salinas Valley from Ireland in the late 1800s, and their fictional neighbors, the Trasks, who embodied what he called “the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” (As if this weren’t clear enough, two generations of Trask sons have the initials “A” and “C”; if you know your Bible, you know which ones the fathers love better and how the others feel about it.)

This scheme didn’t last long; family history is interesting, but it doesn’t quite compare to the “one story in the world.” Still, there are plenty of Hamilton stories interspersed throughout the Trask epic (a small boy named John Steinbeck even makes a few appearances), as well as long philosophical discussions between the characters that apparently relate more to the book’s themes than its plot, and short essays from the author himself. The whole thing runs to nearly 800 pages. It’s puzzling and ambiguous—even Steinbeck doesn’t seem to have everybody all figured out—and magnificent.

But how do you dramatize such a thing?

Steppenwolf’s Terry Kinney and Frank Galati have, over the past 35 years, become the leading experts in bringing Steinbeck to the stage, first with Of Mice and Men, directed by Kinney, and then with The Grapes of Wrath, adapted and directed by Galati and featuring Kinney as Preacher Casy. However, Of Mice and Men had been adapted by Steinbeck himself, and while The Grapes of Wrath had a much larger cast of characters, the narrative was still linear enough that Woody Guthrie could summarize it in one six-minute song. East of Eden is something else entirely.

In his adaptation, Galati tried to find what Kinney, who directs, calls “the driving force, the emotional character of the book.” There was a lot of cutting; the play begins with a scene that’s on page 218 in the book. (Which, they point out, is more than 200 pages earlier than the 1955 James Dean movie.) There’s also an emphasis on Lee, the Trasks’ Chinese cook, who Galati calls “the moral and spiritual center of the story. He’s plainspoken but a poetic thinker. He asks the big, big questions.”

Recently Kinney and Galati sat down to talk about the play during their rehearsal lunch break. They’d spent the morning working on the scene in which Adam Trask, Samuel Hamilton, and Lee flip through the Bible to find names for Adam’s two infant sons. They settle on Aron and Caleb.(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Terry Kinney
Terry KinneyCredit: Joel Moorman

Terry Kinney:
[Adam’s brother] Charles wanted the love of Adam. Cal wants the love of Adam too.

Frank Galati: It’s hard for me to comprehend, because I don’t have a brother. I have a sister, I know all about that dynamic, but for a parent to prefer one child over the other to the extent that harm comes to the less favored. . . . It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around that. Do you have a brother?

TK: It’s in the collective unconsciousness. There’s always a favorite, the way parents look at you. It’s there between brothers and sisters, and it’s passed down. The idea of timshel, thou mayest [triumph over sin], is our ability to know the afflictions and be able to choose to walk the other way. It’s hard work.

FG: It was years before I found out my sister resented the fact that our parents and uncle and grandmother called her Sissy. That attached her to me, identified her as my sister instead of herself. It took 50 years.

TK: Did you call her by her name?

FG: I always called her Franny, never Sissy. She never had much of a problem with me, but she always felt second class, the younger girl.

TK: You were Aron!

FG: It’s too Jungian. [shakes head]

TK: I saw last night this Steinbeck quote, “Now stop trying to be perfect and be good.” It made me think of Cal’s narcissism, like, “Oh, I did it, I did it [killed my brother],” thrashing around and punishing himself for his natural impulse to be a fully rounded human being.

Frank Galati
Frank GalatiCredit: Joel Moorman

FG: It’s a constant source of amazement to us that Steinbeck is able to achieve that level of power and sophistication. I can’t think of how someone has that range of power and complexity, even after working on Grapes. It’s so personal in my mind. He tells everything, from the Steinbeck family back to myth—”the only story”—the Genesis narrative, two brothers marked in different ways.

TK: Deep into the novel, there’s one purely philosophical short chapter, Chapter 34. It sums up the entire experience. “There’s only one story.”

FG: It took [Steinbeck] 11 months to write the first draft, from January to November, five days a week, without stopping, seven hours a day, using a pencil to write in longhand. I can’t fathom it. To have the discipline to force yourself to go detail by detail through this layered, complex story is a Herculean task. The depth of insight, the beauty of the writing. What we found in The Grapes of Wrath is more true here. He’s great at shaping and crafting dramatic scenes. He’s as good at dialogue and drama as Eugene O’Neill. And he has this magnificent vision.

TK: If you don’t plumb the depths, it rings very, very hollow. We’re lending our own story to mythos. If you can’t bring your own connective tissue, your own pain and joy, your own heartbreak, if you can’t bring it to your own story, it’s not as full as it could be. It’s my job to beat the hell out of people.

FG: And you’re brilliant at it. I read in a book about Joseph Campbell that you must feed myth with your own blood. Not until you embody it, literally embody it, that myth is where it is. It’s not a fairy tale, it’s not a moral, it’s a lived action.

TK: You need to take it out of the ether. We need stories to make sense of our own lives. It’s a task to get it out of our heads into the body. We have to bring this to life. It’s deep work. It went on with Grapes of Wrath for two years.

FG: And four productions. Each time we had a full rehearsal schedule.

TK: There was never a moment where I felt like I wasn’t just scratching the surface.

FG: At the end of the run, we get to a scene, and we think, “That’s what it meant!”

TK: The character of Cathy—we approach her as a person who wants something. She wants to protect herself from harm. It’s an American story, and a western story to boot. As Paul Schrader said, in the east, a man who is depressed opens a window and jumps out. In the west, he opens the window and shoots. Cathy is a turn-of-the-century Taxi Driver. I hope people feel something for her when she talks about Alice in Wonderland, sneaking past Alice. She’s not small, she’s invisible. It’s a great joy for her to picture herself diminished and the pain she caused everywhere else. There’s that connective tissue again. Each of us is capable of the same thing.

FG: What a cast of characters!

TK: I was sad to lose the whole Hamilton family. We carried the structure of the family by having Samuel as a father figure for Adam and Will to reflect on being the unloved son. His scene with Cal [where Will and Cal become business partners] is the connective tissue to reflect back on the central theme over and over. It’s all inherited. It’s all inherited.

FG: Samuel’s not in the film. We don’t give the audience stage time with Samuel and his children. But his wisdom and his wit, his huge soul and heart and clumsiness and inventiveness—everything about him shines over the whole story. He exits from the story at the end of the first act, but his spirit hangs over the rest.

It’s satisfying to find the play hiding in the novel. There are a couple of plays hiding in the novel.

TK: It would be fun to go back and do plays about the other characters. Like Charles. I miss him more than anyone.