The Pastures of California: Cal Shakes's Word for Word Performance of John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven



Recently I took my wife to Cal Shakes's production of John Steinbeck's The Pastures of Heaven, which opened the tenth year of the California Shakespeare Theater under the artistic direction of Jonathan Moscone. Also, 2010 marked the opening of the sleekly rustic Sharon Simpson Center at the Bruns outdoor amphitheater. Standing by the Joffa and Ellen Dale Living Roof across from the forty-foot mural by Jose Ortiz, we stared at the tall trees and high blond hills of Orinda's Siesta Valley just outside the Caldicott Tunnel. There in the distance on one of those impossibly high, broad hills, two head of cattle drifted over the horizon into the blue background of the summer sky. My wife smiled, “Must be the pastures of heaven.”

Cal Shakes showed us these pastures of heaven all around us in this rousing interpretation of John Steinbeck's beloved book. The eleven-member ensemble cast, each playing as many as forty different roles, brought its characters to life with humor, pathos, and thrilling action. The play climaxed with the burning of the Whiteside mansion on stage with smoke and lighting (compliments of set designer Annie Smart and lighting designer York Kennedy). Standout performances included recent MFA graduates Emily Kitchens as the beloved teacher Molly Morgan and Tobie Windham as her unfortunate pupil Tularecito. Director Jonathan Moscone claimed, “I’ve had to use every tool in my toolbox and then some” (D'Souza). Moscone succeeded, along with playwright Octavio Solis, in using a kaleidoscope of stagecraft to develop a colorful, coherent presentation of Steinbeck's most puzzling novel.

The Pastures of Heaven (1932) was John Steinbeck's second published novel after Cup of Gold (1929). Though enthusiastically accepted by the literary agency McIntosh and Otis, the book met mixed reviews and suffered poor sales (Valjean 145). Many did not understand the format. Indeed, today some critics consider The Pastures of Heaven one of Steinbeck's finest novels, while others view the text as Steinbeck's greatest collection of short stories. Often described as a story cycle, Steinbeck's work consists of twelve separate chapters, eleven of which focus upon Battle farm and its new owners, the Munroes, with the last serving as an epilogue taking place in the eponymous valley around 1925, after the tenure of the main characters.

Las Pastoras, as the valley is often called by its inhabitants, is based on an actual place that Steinbeck knew in his youth, the Corral de Tierra, where his aunt Molly Martin kept a ranch, a valley located twelve miles outside Monterey. This Fence of Earth Steinbeck renamed the Pastures of Heaven in order to avoid any embarrassment to its inhabitants because he wanted to base the over-arching narrative of his book on an actual family who, like the Munroes, unwittingly brought unhappiness and ruin in their wake. In a letter to his literary agent Mavis McIntosh, Steinbeck writes:

The valley was for years known as the happy valley because of the unique harmony which existed among its twenty families. About ten years ago a new family moved in on one of the ranches. They were ordinary people, ill educated but honest and as kindly as any. In fact, in their whole history I cannot find they have committed a really malicious act nor an act which was not dictated by honorable expedience or out and out altruism. But about the M—s there was a flavor of evil. (Hughes 90-91)

Though this evil is couched as the curse of the Battle farm itself, much of the human misery in The Pastures of Heaven is caused by human deception and human delusion. These motivations inform the literary naturalism of Steinbeck's style that shows a “mechanistic world” with “no ultimate cause or design” (“The Pastures of Heaven 269). Certainly, deep psychological forces stir beneath the placid surface of the citizens of Las Pastoras as portrayed by Cal Shakes's characters. Particularly notable are the manic obsession of Shark Wicks (a feral Rod Gnapp) over his daughter's potential defloration and the murderous mothering of Helen Van Deventer (a funereal Julie Eccles). These sexual tensions and repressions of small town America have been a popular theme since Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio in 1919, which Steinbeck biographer Jackson J. Benson believes to be a major influence in Steinbeck's Pastures (269). Another obvious literary influence for Steinbeck's novel is Boccaccio's Decameron (269). Steinbeck explains his plan for the novel as follows: “The manuscript is made up of stories each one complete in itself, having its rise, climax, and ending. Each story deals with a family or individual. They are tied together only by a common locality and by the contact with the M—s. I am trying to show this peculiar evil cloud which follows the M—s” (Levant 35). The forty-foot mural by Jose Ortiz outside the Bruns amphitheater illustrates Steinbeck's plan admirably: The first panel shows the mission from which the first Spanish soldier stumbles upon Las Pasturas; the next shows the Battle farm darkened by its curse, then Tularecito drawing his marvelous animals, followed by Alice Wicks and her mother, then the improvident Junius Malthy reading to his son Robbie, followed by the Lopez sisters, the young teacher Molly Morgan, Pat Humbert at his parents’ graves, the Whitesides’ grand home, and finally an empty highway headed toward the sea.

Rather than one consistent background, the mural presents Steinbeck's story as a series of friezes, much like Cal Shakes's production. Unlike the usual method in dramatizing a novel, no individual story is edited, not one character eliminated. Instead Cal Shakes's production of The Pastures of Heaven presents Steinbeck word for word, detail by detail, as each appears in the book. Helping in this ponderous translation are collaborators, Word for Word Performing Arts Company, San Francisco's avant garde theatrical group whose mission is “to excite people about the written word” by performing an author's work exactly as written (“Word for Word”).

Dramatizing twelve separate stories in one evening word for word presented several challenges. One challenge was managing the sweep of Steinbeck's twelve self-contained stories in order to give each story's main characters their due. This artistic choice could have led to a long evening; in fact, running time by my watch was two hours and fifty minutes. Nevertheless, under the able direction of Jonathan Moscone, the performances remained lively, the pacing brisk, and the transitions astonishingly clear and smooth.

Another challenge of performing Steinbeck word for word was adapting prose to dialog. Naturally not every word in Steinbeck's Pastures of Heaven was spoken; yet much of the exposition was retained. Therefore, characters gave long speeches, talking in paragraphs—sometimes as soliloquies, sometimes simply in conversation—or else characters spoke parenthetically as if reading stage directions aloud. This method led to stilted lines for such characters as neglected housewife Katherine Wicks (a warm Joanne Winter), who said, “Thus,” or confided that she once had “the firm freshness of a new weed.”

These challenges of multiple plots and expository dialog led to the challenge of theme. Linear plot development with scenes appearing like sections of a mural lacked the building of suspense usually expected in plays. Every character and every story shared equal importance so that the audience's level of attention rose to a plateau of interest that never peaked, for there is no development of an argument for the playwright's own interpretation of the novel's theme. I think this method works better for an audience who had already read the text rather than one who had not, though my wife (who had not) thoroughly enjoyed the play.

Much of the enjoyment in Cal Shakes's production of The Pastures of Heaven was its light, buoyant tone that is mostly missing from Steinbeck's novel. As a result of Octavio Solis's tidy adaptation and Jonathan Moscone's deft direction, much of the tragedy in Steinbeck's novel became comedy—-particularly in the Helen Van Deventer episode, which owed its comic tone to the extravagant performance of Word for Word charter member Amy Kossow as the unruly daughter Hilda. The incongruity of the Junoesque Kossow's playing a child in tantrums turned her being shot by her mother into comedy, especially while her dead father (a stolid Andy Murray) kept instructing the mother, “Have me mounted between the bullmoose and the bighorn.”

The very speed that had to be maintained in order for all the stories to be told helped create this comic atmosphere. This is true especially in the episode of the Lopez sisters (the spirited Catherine Castellanos and Joanne Winter) who, in Steinbeck's text, became unfair targets of bigotry and victims of misogyny. As a nod to the Hispanic members of the Pastures community, the Lopez sisters’ story was sung like a corrido with clever lyrics, musical accompaniment, and dance. At the end, when the sisters decided to become prostitutes in San Francisco, this pathetic conclusion in one chapter of the book ended instead one scene of the play on a note of triumphant girl power.

The sunniness that pervades the Cal Shakes production mitigates the uniformly dreary ending to each story in Steinbeck's novel, perhaps because of the mission of Word for Word. According to its website, “Word for Word believes in the power of the short story to provide solace, compassion, and insight into our daily lives” (“Word for Word”). This belief translates onstage through bright stagecraft into an unfailing optimism despite the dark material. To convey word for word the spirit of Steinbeck's prose, these actors employed histrionics in speech and gesture, addressed the audience, clowned, cross-dressed, sang, and danced in order to keep the action lively and full of good cheer. This method of presentation did not attempt the realism of modern theater. Rather, it resembled the guerilla theater of Luis Valdez, who has said, “The dramatic situation, the thing you’re trying to portray on the stage must be very close to the reality that is on the stage” (qted in Carlson 467). Hence, the actors emphasized that they were playing multiple parts by addressing the audience directly and providing their own narration.

An important decision in establishing this upbeat tone was focusing the action on the Whiteside family instead of the Munroes. The handsome, multi-tiered stage at the Bruns Amphitheater served all the stories in The Pastures of Heaven from the cursed Battle farm to T.B. Allen's general store. The play began with the appearance of Richard Whiteside (a genial Richard Thierot), at the very height of the stage (the Heavens of this Globe Theater), as though just entering the gap into the valley of the Pasturas. There the play began with a speech in which he waited for a sign that an eddy of dry leaves provided. The play ended, likewise, with Richard Whiteside's addressing the audience once more. His appearance at the end was the play's one significant departure from the book. Steinbeck's Pastures of Heaven ends with a bus of strangers viewing the Pasturas for the first time and imagining their lives there. This ending, ironic and bittersweet, was omitted. Instead of the new anonymous characters on the bus, all the characters returned—including the banished Molly Morgan and Tularecito—all willing to begin again: “Some day … it would be nice … . but I can’t, of course.” I counted all ten actors of the ensemble on stage, then realized one was missing. Suddenly Richard Whiteside reappeared on his promontory to confess that his dream of establishing a family dynasty had been in vain. However, with all those members of the community he founded gathered at his feet, his character had become, in fact, the paterfamilias, a much more important influence in their lives than the baleful influences of the hapless Munroes. As Richard Whiteside spoke, the ensemble chanted in intervals the line “In California,” and in its repetition the line gained emphasis and meaning. It is a numinous moment, for Richard Whiteside is right: California is bigger than any one man, or family, or brand. Still, we are a community, made up of smaller communities, like the one the audience and cast have formed by the end of the play, for Cal Shakes shows that even today, in California, may still be found The Pastures of Heaven.

Ed Sams is an award-winning writer of short stories and poems and has had plays produced at Actor's Theater, Broadway Theater, and Mountain Community Theatre. For the past thirteen years he has been a lecturer at San Jose State University.