Frank Galati Talks ‘East of Eden’ World Premiere and 40 Years of Steppenwolf

In 1988, Frank Galati’s adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” hit the Steppenwolf Theatre Company stage before going on to win two Tony Awards. Now, Steppenwolf once again turns to Galati and a John Steinbeck classic to open their 40th anniversary season.

Make It Better spoke with Galati about “East of Eden,” being reunited with Steppenwolf ensemble members and the theatre’s most recent milestone.

Make It Better: Tell us about your process for adapting “East of Eden.”

Frank Galati: The challenge of adapting it for the stage is daunting and I tried a number of different approaches and angles in the last … three years that I’ve been working on this adaptation. … What’s tricky about trying to make it live on stage is … you sort of have to find the play that’s hiding inside of the novel. … There’s plenty of drama and there are plenty of dialogue scenes that can hold the stage, but the task, I think, for the adapter is to sort of cut away what is not central and essential to the cluster of characters that are at the core of the novel. And naturally I’ve had to choose to retain certain characters and to not have other characters that are very important in the novel even appear on stage. … So, it’s full of challenges and obstacles but it’s a rich, rich narrative and it’s intensely dramatic.

Why is “East of Eden” such a good fit for Steppenwolf?

It’s a story that provides an opportunity to inhabit characters who are mythic in scope and it requires a naturalism in acting, an absolute realism in acting in order for it to work, and that’s one of the things Steppenwolf prizes as a value, really great acting. Not overacting, not shmacting, not faking, not showing off, but trying to be dead honest and … find the truth in the characters and the truth in the scenes.

There are also a lot of similarities between Steppenwolf’s productions of “East of Eden” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” (In addition to Galati’s ties to both shows, ensemble members Francis Guinan, Tim Hopper, Terry Kinney and Alan Wilder all performed in “The Grapes of Wrath” and reunite for “East of Eden.”)

It’s fantastic. I mean, this is one of the great beauties and advantages of a long-lived ensemble. We go way back. We have so many shared adventures. We’ve acted and directed and written and played together, criticized one another. We’ve had hits. We’ve had misses. We’ve suffered and we’ve had great joy. And this is what enriches and enhances the work. … That’s one of the great things about the Steppenwolf ensemble, is that we really love working together.

“East of Eden” opens Steppenwolf’s 40th anniversary season. What does reaching that milestone mean to you? 

Wow, it’s kind of overwhelming. It’s very moving. We’ve been very, very fortunate in that the work we’ve done has been seen and recognized around the world, and I think “East of Eden” is a sign of the theater’s continued commitment to be bold and to take risks and to be courageous. This is not an easy choice. … It’s a very brave and forward-thinking move on the part of the theater and perfect for our 40th anniversary season opener.


East of Eden” runs through Nov. 15 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets ($20-89) can be purchased by calling 312-335-1650 or online.

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