Sprawling Pastures

There was an appropriately agricultural scent in the air for opening night of California Shakespeare Theater’s world premiere of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven. The company’s brand new Sharon Simpson Center with café, store, offices and the like under a verdant living roof was not quite completed, and the prosperous smell of fertilizer wafted through the outdoor amphitheater.

The cast of The Pastures of Heaven. Photo by Kevin Berne

Now, this is the kind of metaphor that can go off the rails mighty quick, because what we’re really talking about here is the smell of shit, but fortunately that’s not the apropos part at all. It felt appropriate not just because Steinbeck’s 1932 novel of interconnected short stories is set in an agricultural community in the Salinas Valley, but because of the overwhelming sense of the fertile creativity that went into the creation of the company’s first world premiere on its Bruns Amphitheater stage. (It’s the second original play in the company’s mainstage history, after what was then the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival created its own adaptation of Ivanhoe.)

The Pastures of Heaven comes out of Cal Shakes’s New Works/New Communities program, the point of which is partner with other theater companies and community organizations to create new works based on classic literature. Naomi Iizuka’s Hamlet: Blood in the Brain at Intersection for the Arts in 2006 was the first world premiere to come out of the program, but this is the first to be unveiled at the Bruns.

For Pastures the company teamed up with Word for Word, a company that specializes in staging short stories as written, with no word omitted.  Word for Word had performed a section of the book before, but their usual style wouldn’t work for the whole book unless they wanted the play to be a day-long event. Playwright Octavio Solis was brought in to condense and adapt the entire book for the stage.

In fact the first and last of the book’s twelve stories are omitted—both particularly short sections that function as a prologue and epilogue in all but name. While the other stories are roughly contemporaneous, the book starts with a conquistador “discovering” the valley and ends with a bus passing through the area decades after the rest of the action. Solis leaves out these bookends and concentrates on the ten central stories. He breaks up the last of these, which starts a generation earlier than the rest, and uses that one as a framing sequence instead.

Annie Smart’s set is an appealing tri-level mishmash of rooms from different houses, with a weathervane-topped spire and a cabin interior up top, a windmill on one side and a vintage truck on the other. The full cast of eleven is clustered onstage as the play begins, punctuating one character’s opening speech with rhapsodic repetitions of the phrase “in California” that get old pretty quickly. That first narrator is Richard Whiteside, played with bright-eyed enthusiasm by Richard Thierot, who came out West (“in California!”) in the Gold Rush and wound up building his house near Salinas for the wife and family he didn’t even have yet.

We come back to succeeding generations of the Whiteside family later, but in the meantime the play jumps 75 years or so to a farmer named Bert Monroe, embodied by a forthright and amiable Charles Shaw Robinson. Bert is fixing the buy the old abandoned Battle farm, and the fellas who hang around the general store try to tell him that the place is cursed by jumping back in time 60 years or so to run through the farm’s history of death, insanity and mysterious disappearances. After a string of calamitous luck of his own, Bert just hopes the two curses will cancel each other out.

The cast on the whole is a knockout. Rod Gnapp gives aching performances in the very different roles of a spiteful investor whom everyone calls the Shark and as a lonely man in a house haunted by the nagging ghosts of his puritanical parents (Dan Hiatt and Amy Kossow). Julie Eccles is affecting as kindly but straightlaced Mrs. Monroe, as an almost fanatically devoted wife who refuses to listen when told she can’t have more children, and most magnificently as a refined widow who takes a grim sort of pride in the tragedies she’s endured. Not only did her husband (a delightfully stodgy Andy Murray) die in a hunting accident, but her daughter is a tantruming whirlwind of delusional chaos in a formidable performance by Amy Kossow, who later plays a flustered schoolmarm.

Emily Kitchens is a delight as two nubile live-wire daughters of different families, one of them hilariously awkward in her coltishness, and as a disturbingly enthusiastic young schoolteacher. Thierot similarly plays different eligible young men of the town, one a smooth-tongued libertine and another a bashful, retiring lad. Tobie Windham gives a heartbreaking turn as Tularecito, a learning-disabled boy with a fantastically talented drawing hand and a fixation on finding people like himself out there somewhere.

Aside from the friendly Bert, Robinson shines as a former banker turned hillbilly philosopher who does nothing but hang out reading all day. Hiatt is nicely versatile as enterprising farmer George Battle, upright town father John Whiteside, a rather broad Mexican foreman and German handyman, and an introverted oddball who inadvertently makes trouble by accepting a ride.  Wavering Mexican accent as one rancher aside, Murray packs power into various supporting performances such as a rough-and-tumble chicken farmer and a charming but nightmarishly unreliable drunk of a father.

Catherine Castellanos has a pleasing presence as serial sinner and penitent Rosa Lopez and as a boisterous farmer’s wife, although one wild-eyed mother she plays in flashbacks reminds me a little two much of her mad Margaret in Cal Shakes’ unfortunate Richard III production a few years ago. Although her Shark’s wife Mrs. Wicks is long-suffering to the point of melodrama, Word for Word co-artistic director JoAnne Winter makes a lively restaurateur as Maria Lopez and a lovable near-feral urchin as Robbie Maltby, a cross between Huck Finn and Pig-Pen. Everyone plays a wide variety of kids and other townsfolk, and half the gents in the cast play the same town doctor as a sort of visual running gag, although some of his visits are more tragic than comic.

There are some marvelously funny moments in Solis’s script and Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone’s staging. Unlike the third-person stories in the novel, characters narrate their actions in first-person summary, which is particularly amusing when they’re describing their own deaths, all the more so when they slump down over a table together as they die.

Some transitions between stories are pretty abrupt: the ensemble might bark a character’s nickname all of a sudden, and away we go into that person’s story. But Solis does an impressive job of capturing Steinbeck’s lyrical style and wry wit, making some parts that are pure Solis sound as Steinbeckian as the lines from the actual book.

The entire story of the Lopez sisters, whose failing Mexican restaurant leads to a sideline in prostitution, is sung as a corrido. That provides a welcome change of pace, but by the same token it doesn’t fit the style of the rest of the piece. If there were other sung sections of the play it might seem less glaring, but as it stands the whole section feels underdeveloped and disposable, and the rhyme and meter become tedious after a while.

The show is three hours and seems every bit that long. Part of the problem is that because the stories are self-contained, there’s no overall dramatic arc to the play. That’s a problem in itself, but it also makes it hard to have any idea when it’s going to end because there’s no sense of things drawing toward closure. I suppose you could mentally count down how many of the 10 stories are left in the same way you might scan the song list in the program of a musical, but for me, there were at least three times I thought it was over and it wasn’t.

Although most of them are funny along the way, the stories are hauntingly bittersweet, so overwhelmingly so that after a while the downbeat twist endings begin to take on a repetitive quality, almost like a horror anthology except sad instead of spooky.

Including all the main stories is part of the project’s mission statement, and taken one by one they’re each devastating, lyrical tales. But taken as a whole, fatigue sets in, and it’s hard not to wonder if two or three of them could have been omitted somehow. To the credit of everyone concerned from Steinbeck on down, it’s hard to say which ones.  Maybe the Lopez sisters? Possibly the tale of why Bert doesn’t eat chicken, although one might miss its digs at the death penalty. It’s an ambitious work that’s largely remarkably successful, but it might be even more so if it scaled its ambition down just a notch or two.

John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven
Through June 27
Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre
100 California Shakespeare Theater Way
Orinda, CA

Show #65 of 2010, attended June 5

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