John Steinbeck's “Of Mice and Men” is a classic of American literature and his stage adaptation has had a long and very popular life. Jerry Manning said that he's wanted to direct it at the Rep for ten years and that passion and commitment is evident in every moment of this vivid, beautifully acted and handsomely staged production. While some may wonder why this time-specific tale of men struggling through the Great Depression is relevant at this late date, the dramatic encounter with such realistic and recognizable characters immediately reminds us that all it requires for a play to be relevant is a genuine portrayal of the human condition. If these individuals and their relationships, their hopes, desires, dreams and ambitions are genuine then the period and setting are really only decorative. Humanity is universal and the struggle to realize full lives is beyond time or place.
Critical to this story working is the successful creation of George, an entirely ordinary man trying to work his way through a social calamity much bigger than he is, and Lennie, a powerful, simple-minded giant who really has nothing other than his friend George to build a life upon. Troy Fischnaller is excellent as George, avoiding any temptation to make the man heroic or exemplary and still crafting a character of substance and consequence. I especially liked the way he managed to make George no different than the other men working on the ranch and, at the same time, separate himself from them in ways that define both his uniqueness and his fundamental dissociation from everyone else in his life but Lennie.
The masterful Charles Leggett plays Lennie better than anyone I've ever seen, building the man into someone who is sweet and needy, physically crude and emotionally innocent, strong of body but fragile in temperament, a mind of limited horizons and simple desires. Most importantly, the production builds the relationship so that we understand that they are each other's only hope, most desperate dream and mutual insufficiency. By the end of the play the dramatic climax that could easily seem contrived or melodramatic is earned, powerful and very moving.
The ranch hands who populate this desolate acreage of sand and disappointment are uniformly accomplished and distinctive. Sean G. Griffin turns the old dog Candy into a man still full of life and battling old age and despair with all he's got, far from willing to admit he's not worth a damn any more. Ray Tagavilla gave a particularly impressive performance as Carlson, a rawhide tough man with callous all but grown over much of his heart. Teagle F. Bougere plays the crippled black stableman Crooks with strength and dignity, making the ugly racism he suffers as a matter of course from the others seem even more cruel and repulsive. Eric Ray Anderson is a boss who knows he isn't really one of those who will work this place for a month and then be back on the road, but you can tell he still remembers when he was. Jim Gall gives the tall and handsome character of Slim a real character and genuine masculinity. He's a good man, with the emphasis on both words. Finally, Seanjohn Walsh struts around the stage as the bantam cock, Curley, parading nothing more obviously than his own insecurity and inadequacy. We know he is trouble from the moment he arrives because he knows that none of these other men can see him without judging him, and he knows what that judgment will be.
Elise Karolina Hunt is the only woman in the cast, the only woman on the place and, at that, without a name other than Curley's Wife. Overwhelmed by her own unfulfilled dreams and with nothing more than her sexuality to leverage the attention of the men around her, it is a difficult, complex role. While Ms. Hunt played her with an attractive brightness and a slightly immature sauciness, what I really thought was missing was the price of her having sold-out so easily, and at such a low price. I didn't see the toll taken on a woman who relies on her sexual attraction to reinforce her identity, and who is increasingly aware every day that none of her dreams will ever come true, that she will not be realized as a woman, as a wife, as a lover or as a person. That is a depth that I think Curley's Wife has to bring us, as an audience, to and in this case it just didn't happen for me.
This is a beautifully designed and built production. The elaborate and evocative scenic design by Jennifer Zeyl creates a landscape in the middle of nowhere at a time when the American economy, and the American people, were equally in the middle of nowhere. Every detail of the set dressing was perfect and every item felt like it had been there since long before the start of the play and would be there long after the curtain fell. Deb Trout costumed with an accuracy that made everyone look like nothing other than the person they would be in real life. Robert J. Aguilar gave the production a subtle and beautiful lighting design that enhanced every shift in the drama. Without drawing undue attention to itself, Robertson Witmer created a moving and very effective sound design and composed excellent original music.
As part of an educational outreach, this production will be seen by hundreds of local students and it is very fortunate for them that their first exposure to this important drama, this important American story, is so very well accomplished. Beautifully produced, expertly performed and splendidly directed, this is one of those productions where the answer to “why produce this show now?” is, resoundingly, because everyone involved wants to do this show now. That should make you want to see it.
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