The Western Stage''s production of Alan Cook''s critically acclaimed stage adaptation of John Steinbeck''s great novel, East of Eden, is back on the boards. The full trilogy comes in at around eight hours and is being shown in three parts: "The Chain is Forged," "The Unrelenting Past" and "The Chain is Broken."

East of Eden is the story of the Trask family, beginning with Cyrus Trask, a Connecticut farmer and veteran of the Civil War whose brutality toward his two sons, Adam and Charles, sets in motion the tragic events that bedevil his male descendants. Based on the story of Cain and Abel, the biblical tale of brotherly betrayal, jealousy and violence, East of Eden resonates on a collective level. In this sense, East of Eden bring us back to the very roots of theater.

Theater evolved out of a tradition of ritual in which a community reenacted a sacred, profound and primal event. On one level it is a way of reminding a people of the power of that event while creating a collective consciousness about who we are and where we have come from. In grappling with the primal filial relationships described in East of Eden, The Western Stage, uniquely situated in the Salinas Valley--the setting of the narrative--creates a truly communal theatrical moment that moves beyond postmodern detachment and brings us closer to the primal source.

Far greater in scope than the biblical story and weighing in at over 700 pages, the notion of adapting East of Eden for the stage was a daunting proposition. Yet that is exactly what The Western Stage has done.

East of Eden--the stage play--has gone through numerous incarnations. After receiving the rights to adapt the material 12 years ago, The Western Stage granted writer Alan Cook a two-year residency to allow him to develop the script. Excerpts from the work were presented at local schools and at the Steinbeck Festival in the early ''90s. The first full production opened to critical applause in 1992, and then again in 1994. The agreement with the Steinbeck estate "is that the script is to be rebuilt for each production, never resting in a finalized permanent form." According to director Tom Humphrey, the adaptation is a living work that is continually changing, striving always to be new. "Subsequently," he says, "the show feels new to me." And presumably to the audience as well.

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Of course, some aspects of this production will look familiar to previous audience members--the set is based on the original Robert Brill design and incorporates Derek Duarte''s lighting design and Carmen Borgia''s sound and music design. Nevertheless, with only 12 original actors returning--among them Rollie Dick who originated the role of Sam Hamilton--the emotional energy of the play will certainly be distinctive.

East of Eden was chosen as the Steinbeck novel to adapt to the stage because of its relevance to the people of the Salinas Valley. Ostensibly, Steinbeck wrote it to describe to his sons what it was like to grow up in Salinas. Perhaps, too, it was a way for him to reconcile the contradictions of the region and his difficult relationship with his hometown.

It is said that if one hears one''s own story, therein lies absolution. It is in the act of telling and hearing our own narrative that we come to understand our strengths and frailties, our perfections and flaws. East of Eden, John Steinbeck''s greatest novel, is not only the story of the Trask family, the Salinas Valley and John Steinbeck, it is the story of each of us. Through The Western Stage''s ambitious re-enactment of that primal event, we are all absolved.

East of Eden opens Friday on the Main Stage at Hartnell College in Salinas. See Theater Listings for dates and times.

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