John Steinbeck’s story about the dreams of working stiffs falling apart cloaks a sort of Cain and Abel tale in proletarian weeds. In this production of Of Mice and Men, even before the hobo protagonists shamble onto the stage with their bindles, the real star of the show — a massive revolving platform with three different sets on it — commands the audience’s attention.
Scenic designer T. Andrew Aston’s set is a marvel to behold. The riverbank set sports a reflecting pool and a fire ring that seems to crackle into flame. Sprays of wood fan out and suggest brush, or are girded together to suggest trees. While Aston takes the show to the loftiest heights of technical facility, it’s at least faintly ironic to see Steinbeck’s raw, proletarian story given such grand staging. Might the bunkhouse have been a bit shabbier in the gritty 1930s?
The astute theatergoer will detect the play’s socialist strain — itinerant workers trying to organize a world without bosses — but it’s not preachy. The play has a sense of humor.
George Milton and Lennie Small are two tramps running from their past, tormented by their desire for a better life. Lennie is a mountain of a man with the mind and heart of a child, a source of irritation for George, who’s bound to his dimwitted buddy and can’t bear to abandon him. Their story plays out over three days in the agricultural lands of Great Depression California. Steinbeck presents the unsavory realities of nasty, short and brutish lives, as when one character shrieks insults at a flirtatious woman’s corpse.
Like it or not, Steinbeck has become an American classic. As with any classic, it’s possible to be so respectful of the text as to miss the rough, sometimes provocative humor that permeates the work.
For those unfamiliar with Steinbeck’s touch, it can sound cruel that George’s forgetfulness and stupidity are fodder for humor, but the author had a knack for using simpleminded characters while preserving their dramatic dignity. This frees up Jeff Thomakos, who has a knack for mugging and miming, to fill out the role of George with physical comedy that brims with dopey good humor and open-mouthed torpor.
Another actor who gets it is James Bowen, playing Crooks, the moonshine-guzzling stable man. (Beware, the play refers to him as a “nigger.”) Bowen’s sarcastic snarling and bitter resentment give his performance a resonance and depth that the other actors should aspire to. Frankly, next to Bowen, some of the other performances seem perfunctory.
What gives Steinbeck’s foray into proletarian theater life is his fantastic ear for dialogue, his firm grip of the American vernacular. Some actors bring the lines to life better than others. Paul Hopper makes the most of his part as the old-timer Candy, sounding like a toothless Roy Rogers talking through a mouthful of tobacco.
The audio design is unusual and effective. In addition to traditional sound cues, the cast creates ambient sounds of horseshoe games, guitar-plunking reverie and bustling suppers backstage.
The lighting design deserves high marks, for it had to illuminate three different sets all on the same whirling Lazy Susan. Dramatic dusks and campfires move the drama along without calling too much attention to themselves.
The audience gave the performance rousing and prolonged applause after each scene. Those planning to see the show can expect two hours-plus of fantastic theatrical design, some very good acting, and a rich working-class play that remains relevant even in these days of glossy pop entertainment.
Of Mice and Men is now playing at Meadow Brook Theatre.
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