Entering heavenly Pastures



The ensemble of Cal Shakes and Word for Word’s The Pastures of Heaven, an adaptation of the John Steinbeck book by Octavio Solis. Photos by Kevin Berne


Spectacular things are happening at the Bruns Amphitheater – on stage and off.

At long last, California Shakespeare Theater is getting a performance venue worthy of its status as one of the Bay Area’s foremost theater companies. Improvements to the Bruns include a new box office, new landscaping and, most importantly, a beautiful new 7,850-square-foot building to house its food operations and some spectacular bathrooms (if you ever used the bathrooms in the old endlessly “temporary” facility, you’ll appreciate just how spectacular these new facilities really are).

The improvements aren’t quite done yet, but they’re already upping the ante on the Cal Shakes experience – and just in time for Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone’s 10-year anniversary with the company.

So many things to celebrate ̶ not the least of which is the world-premiere production on the Bruns stage.

There’s a palpable sense of the new at Cal Shakes, and that extends to Octavio Solis’ adaptation of the 1932 John Steinbeck novel The Pastures of Heaven, which is the first world premiere to take place at the Bruns. In translating this book for the stage, Cal Shakes turned to the one of the nation’s greatest literary and theatrical resources, which just happens to be across the bay in San Francisco: Word for Word Performing Arts Company. There’s no better company when it comes to adapting fiction for the stage.

But in keeping with the whole idea of making things new, Word for Word’s collaboration with Cal Shakes involves, for the first time, a playwright. Usually, the wizards at Word for Word adapt short works of fiction for the stage without changing a word of the author’s original text. That’s why they’re every writer’s favorite theater company. This time out, they’re working with a playwright, and it’s inevitable that the playwright will place his own literary and theatrical stamp on Steinbeck’s work.

So you end up with an extraordinary quartet of collaborators: Cal Shakes, Word for Word, celebrated San Francisco playwright Octavio Solis and a silent but very present John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck’s Heaven, published when the author was only 30, is a novel told in 10 thematically linked short stories (with a prologue and epilogue), and Solis’ adaptation more or less follows the structure of the book with some dramatic rearrangement. The result is a play that feels more like a complete novel than the actual novel does. A deeply human story of dreams and destiny, of flaws, foibles and failure, Pastures of Heaven, both on the page and on the stage, is a compelling and beautiful story shot through with the sadness of fantasy clashing with reality.

Directed with the emotional acuity and elegance we’ve come to expect from Moscone, these Pastures are rich with nearly three hours’ worth of fascinating stories and characters enlivened by a marvelous cast of blended Word for Word company members, Cal Shakes company members and newcomers.

Set in a picturesque valley outside of Salinas, Las Pasturas del Cielo (“pastures of heaven”) was settled by a disenchanted 49er fleeing gold greed seeking an ideal home for many future generations, and though his vast family never quite materialized (he and his wife had only one son, and that son only had one son), the area grew into a thriving little farming community.

And where there’s community there’s drama, as we find out in Steinbeck’s pithy portraits of the valley’s inhabitants. There are so many vivid moments in this production that it’s impossible to catalogue them without simply reprinting Solis’ script. But some of the stand-outs include Rod Gnapp (seen at right with Charles Shaw Robinson) as Shark Wicks, a financial whiz with a big secret whose world collapses just as his wife’s world (so insightfully illuminated by Joanne Winter) expands into bold new emotional places. It’s also impossible to forget Amy Kossow’s portrayal of Hilda Van Deventer, a terrifying child whose mother (the invaluable Julie Eccles) has an unfortunate penchant for grief and endurance.

Madness and mental challenges play a surprisingly large role in the stories Steinbeck chooses to tell. Tobie Windham plays Tularecito, a somewhat deformed young man whose mental grasp of the world is tenuous but whose artistic talent is undeniable. The young man is forced to go to school, but his teacher (an animated Emily Kitchens) reveals an unbridled enthusiasm for the boy’s artwork and his grasp of the more supernatural elements of valley nights.

Amid much serious subjects that includes curses, ghosts, religious fervor, death by snakebites, filicide, financial ruin, and the depression of dashed dreams, the play takes a break for a chapter told completely in song. With music by Obadiah Eaves and musical direction by Julie Wolf, actors Winter and Catherine Castellanos (seen at right) play the Lopez sisters, who fail at farming and at running a diner. They finally find success in a centuries-old profession, and they do it singing and dancing (movement by Erika Chong Shuch) all the way.

Aside from wonderful guitar playing at the top of Act 2 by Richard Theiriot, there are no more musical interludes, alas. But we continue to delve into the stories of people – among them are those played by Dan Hiatt, Andy Murray and Charles Shaw Robinson – coming to California with a dream and inevitably having to reconfigure their lives when too much reality interferes.

This is an ambitious, abundantly rewarding new work that combines delicious theatricality (just watch the way 11 actors populate an entire valley and the way Annie Smart’s amazingly precise dollhouse set gives them room to do just that) with a literary pedigree that fuses Steinbeck’s muscular yet poetic prose with Solis’ lyrical, humor-tinged script.

The Pastures of Heaven tills fertile ground. Notions of destiny and legacy weigh heavily in these stories, but so do undercurrents of hope, community and determination. And this powerhouse collaboration yields a new dramatic work that should grow into a long, distinguished life on stage.


Cal Shakes/Word for Word’s The Pastures of Heaven continues through June 27 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. Tickets are $34 to $70. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

Cal Shakes, ACT’s Willis honored

The National Endowment for the Arts – did you know that even existed anymore? – has handed out some $20,000 grants as part of a new NEA New Play Development Program.

And one of the recipients was Berkeley-based California Shakespeare Theater, which will spend 20 grand on early play development activities — read-throughs, public readings and workshop productions — for Pastures of Heaven, which is being written by San Francisco’s Octavio Solis (right), based on a collection of interlinking short stories by John Steinbeck. The piece is being developed with San Francisco’s Word for Word Performing Arts Company

“We are extraordinarily grateful to the NEA for selecting us for this prestigious program,” Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone said in a statement. “Pastures of Heaven marks the first commissioned world premiere play for our Main Stage in our 35-year history.  I hope that our unique collaboration with Octavio, Word for Word and community members in the Salinas Valley and Bay Area will create a significant cultural impact on communities new to us, and perhaps to theater itself, as well as to the field at large.”

Pastures of Heaven is the third play to be developed under Cal Shakes’ New Works/New Communities program, which brings people of diverse backgrounds together around the creation of a new work of theater inspired by classic literature. Based upon Steinbeck’s little-known 1932 novel of interconnected short stories, the play will depict the destruction of dreams within a fragile farming community in Northern California’s Salinas Valley. The play is slated to premiere on Cal Shakes Main Stage in 2010, directed by Moscone.

“Every year the NEA supports about 135 new theatrical premieres, but the NEA New Play Development Program, in partnership with Arena Stage, is something special. It creates a small but superb national network to develop new works from across the country,” said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia.

 For more information about the NEA New Play Development Program, visit http://npdp.arenastage.org. For information about California Shakespeare Theater, visit www.calshakes.org.


Eleven top regional theatre actors from around the country have been selected as the inaugural Lunt-Fontanne Fellows by Ten Chimneys Foundation, the National Historic Landmark estate of Broadway legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne – as part of The Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program, a national program to serve regional theatre actors and the future of American theatre.

Among the 11 fellows is Jack Willis(right, photo by DavdAllenStudios.com), a company member of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

Each Lunt-Fontanne Fellow receives a cash fellowship and will participate in an intensive week-long master class and retreat at Ten Chimneys (in rural Wisconsin) with a respected master teacher.  Acclaimed actress Lynn Redgrave will be the very first master teacher in the Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program.  In addition to a prolific, award-winning career on Broadway, in London, and in film and television, Ms. Redgrave was named in honor of Lynn Fontanne – making her a particularly meaningful choice to launch this important program. 

Ten Chimneys is the home and retreat of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, widely considered the greatest acting couple in American theatre history.  (The estate is fully restored to its original glory.  With all of its contents and personal mementos in place, it looks just as it did in the 1930s and ’40s, when friends like Helen Hayes, Noël Coward, Katharine Hepburn, and countless others visited the Lunts summer after summer.)  For much of the 20th century, Ten Chimneys was the center of the theatrical universe – an important place for the luckiest of artists to retreat, rejuvenate, and collaborate.  The Lunts were known for their dedication to the “next generation” of actors.  They reveled in mentoring young actors.  Legends such as Laurence Olivier, Uta Hagen, Montgomery Clift and Julie Harris proudly considered themselves protégés of the Lunts.  The Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program continues that tradition of mentorship – as Ten Chimneys reassumes its historic role as a powerful resource and inspiration for American theatre.

Here are Willis’ fellow fellows: Suzanne Bouchard, Seattle Repertory Theatre (Seattle); Dan Donohue, Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Ashland, Ore.); Lee Ernst, Milwaukee Repertory Theater (Milwaukee); Mary Beth Fisher, Goodman Theatre (Chicago); Jon Gentry, Arizona Theatre Company (Phoenix and Tucson); Donald Griffin, Alliance Theatre (Atlanta); Naomi Jacobson, Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.); Kim Staunton, Denver Theatre Center (Denver); Todd Waite, Alley Theatre (Houston).

For information about Ten Chimneys, visit www.tenchimneys.org. For information about American Conservatory Theater, visit www.act-sf.org.