Can one escape the sins of their ancestors? Can one choose their own course and overcome an evil background? These questions are explored in NextStop Theatre Company’s glorious new adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. Director Evan Hoffman stages a profound family drama that transports audiences into an unforgettable family saga.
A re-telling of the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve and set in California’s Salinas Valley in the years leading up to World War I, East of Eden focuses on wealthy but overly trusting Adam Trask, his young wife Cathy, and their twin sons. Steinbeck pushed the theme of individual responsibility in his novel. Hoffman’s notes reflected that sentiment: “What matters is that each day we make our choices. Sometimes they are big choices and sometimes they are small and seemingly innocuous ones. From time to time we make the wrong choice and we stumble. But, we must continue on.”
Hoffman also served as Scenic Designer, and his set evoked the distinctly Californian milieu. Upstage, there were three prominent flats painted with a continuous and bucolic, mountainous scene. The stage itself consisted of several wooden planks and minimal props and furniture. NextStop’s stadium seating offered superior sight lines. The costumes wonderfully conveyed the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, thanks to Costume Designer Moyenda Kulemeka, in her second show with NextStop.
There was a strong dynamic between the always superb Zach Brewster-Geisz, as Adam Trask, and the phenomenal Jacob Yeh, who played his right-hand man and cook, Lee. Brewster-Geisz played a man who went through many emotional valleys and peaks with his rotten-souled wife, Cathy (played with caustic bitterness by Annie Ottati).
It was Lee who counseled Adam through the lowest points in his life, introducing Adam to the Biblical concept that every individual is free to choose his own moral path in life, as expressed by the Hebrew word “timshel,” which means “thou mayest” i.e. choose good or evil. Lee also counseled Adam’s wayward son, Caleb, played by John Sygar. In their intensely angry scenes, Yeh and Sygar conducted a virtual acting clinic.
Another important family in Steinbeck’s saga were the Hamiltons. Reginald Richard, in his NextStop Theatre debut, captivated me in his dual roles as farmer Samuel and businessman Will Hamilton. Richard brought authenticity to his interactions with the other actors, particularly those with Brewster-Geisz.
In a successful bit of directorial choice, Hoffman placed William Price as young Caleb and Lorenzo Aten Falconi as young Aron off stage as their grown-up counterparts acted on stage. Price’s last NextStop appearance was as Mike Teavee in Willy Wonka. Eva Jaber, as young Abra Bacon, made her scenes with Price and Falconi sparkle with childlike innocence, off-color language and all.
Hoffman did well to cast Nina Marti as the older Abra as their resemblance is spot on. Other cast members that impressed me included Alana Sharp as Eva; Nahm Darr in the multiple roles of Mr. Bacon, Joe and Doctor; and Kari Ginsburg as Kate.
The punches sustained by a certain character in the show sounded and appeared genuine thanks to Fight Choreographer Casey Kaleba. Lighting Designer Brittany Shemuga ran the lights in a way that matched the moods of the scenes. In a testament to Hoffman’s attention to detail, the show had an Intimacy Director, Meghan Behm.
Though parts of the subject matter are somber, there is much inspiration to be found in this show. As Hoffman put it, “I offer you this story in honor and admiration of your struggle, whatever it may be. May you fight it through and win.” East of Eden is well worth the trek to see it and experience Steinbeck’s vision of early 20th century California.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.