Pastures of Heaven, Cal Shakes

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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The Pastures of Heaven

Rod Gnapp, Amy Kossow and Dan Hiatt in the California Shakespeare Theater’s production of

“The Pastures of Heaven” Photo by Kevin Berne

By John Steinbeck

Adapted by Octavio Solis

Directed by Jonathan Moscone

World premiere

California Shakespeare Theater

June 2-27, 2010

The pastures of heaven are, presumably, endless. Change the verb and settle into a seat at this summer’s California Shakespeare Festival opener and you get “The Pastures of Heaven” is endless. Playwright Octavio Solis’ adaptation of ten John Steinbeck short stories, done in collaboration with Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone and the excellent Word for Word ensemble, has many things to recommend it. Brevity is not one of them. The writing is graceful, the acting exceptionally good and the concept – setting what is virtually a love song to Northern California in a bucolic outdoor venue nestled in the rolling hills of Orinda – can’t be beat.

Steinbeck had many stories to tell, of simple and not-so-simple folk come to settle in a beautiful valley called Pastures of Heaven. A man builds his dream home for the wife and family he does not yet have. Another tends a farm known to be cursed by bad luck, epilepsy, evangelism and death. A financier cooks the books to hide the fact that he doesn’t have a dime in his jeans. His neglected wife uses the adversity to come into her own. The boundless optimism of the pretty young schoolmarm hides the ugly facts of her own childhood. A hermit sits and reads Thucydides all day while his son stumbles merrily around in rags. Children rebel, leave home and break their parents’ hearts. A demonstration on how to kill a rooster becomes a metaphor for executions at San Quentin. And a lot more.

Maybe that’s the problem. Perhaps director Moscone and adapter Solis should have worked with fewer tales, settled for less. As it is, the nearly three-hour long piece, with actors doubling and tripling in roles, seems to be walking around in its own footsteps. The stories are interconnected, with the same characters popping up in different contexts. With one notable exception, they are told in much the same way – the kind of story-theater technique that is the stock in trade of Word for Word. The exception is a rather silly, but highly amusing, musical interlude in which the Lopez sisters (Catherine Castellanos and Joanne Winters) turn their farm into a cantina, then a dance hall and then chuck it all, move to San Francisco and take up residence in a brothel which, they reason, was their destiny all along.

Bay Area favorites Dan Hiatt and Andy Murray excel as a house-proud paterfamilias and a whole lot of other people, respectively. Charles Shaw Robinson, another local stalwart, is the kindly Bert Munroe, he of the accursed farm, with Julie Eccles as his do-gooder wife (as well as an elegant, long-suffering widow who thrives on tragedy). Emily Kitchens is the bouncy, inspired teacher – in addition to several teenage girls – and Tobie Windham has a couple of stunning turns: one as a misfit boy with an amazing artistic bent, the other as a rattlesnake. The cast is rounded out by Amy Kossow, Richard Thieriot and Rod Gnapp, all in a variety of well-sketched characterizations.

Annie Smart’s set is a multi-leveled marvel of houses, stores, schoolroom and fields and Meg Neville’s costumes run an attractive gamut from farm-functional to city chic. “The Pastures of Heaven” is an interesting experiment in theatrical storytelling that succeeds admirably on a number of levels. But less might have been more.

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