Besides their whimsical programming for youngsters, like “The Homework Machine,” Boston Children’s Theatre (BCT) stages conscience-raising, issues-facing plays to stimulate conversation and understanding among young people and adults.
So theatergoers and critics wondered how a wholesome group like BCT could tastefully stage John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” the tragic, controversial 1937, Depression Era drama of two California migrant workers.
First off, they clearly state the play BCT Artistic Director-Director Burgess Clark’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s gritty novel is geared to high school and adult audiences, 14+ years old. Their purpose isn’t to shock or titillate audiences by using foul language (B bombs are liberally thrown here) or blatant sexual references. In Steinbeck’s heyday, those “swear words,” along with marginal, itinerant employment and intolerance towards people with disabilities, were the norm. Also, literary characters resembling real people, such as Steinbeck’s slow-witted, childlike, large-framed Lennie Small (Larson Miller), were taunted in public, and therefore hidden at home, behind locked doors, or committed to mental facilities.
Today, there are special programs for children with specific disabilities, and in some cases, they are mainstreamed into public schools. Regardless of our improved education, enlightenment and understanding, though, 77 years later, treatment and tolerance for the Lennies of the world is still lacking, so this production issues a clarion call to us all.
Set designer Janie Howland’s rustic ranch, accented by John Malinowski’s lighting and Andrew Duncan Will’s wide range of sounds, punctuate Steinbeck’s tale of unlikely duo, Lennie, and his more savvy, sidekick-defender, George (Kevin Paquette), who feels responsible for Lennie after his Aunt Clara died, leaving Lennie alone in the world. Charlestown resident Paquette as George and Miller as Lennie are effective friends and foils. Besides a shattering scene between Lennie and Curley’s wife, the production’s most riveting scenes occur between Lennie and George.
Miller’s portrayal of Lennie’s gentle nature, vacant facial expressions,and devout loyalty to George is touching, as is George’s feigned blustery frustration and protectiveness. They need each other, and they know it.
Clearly, George is intelligent, hardworking, and enjoys his simple life, but he knows Lennie will end up “caged” without him.
But Lennie’s brute strength, imposing size, and childlike behavior, creates misunderstanding and mayhem, causing them to flee and take odd jobs in obscure places. Lennie pats and strokes mice, puppies and bunny rabbits so hard, he unwittingly snaps their necks, killing them. He also loves touching silky, smooth, furry textures, getting him into more serious trouble. After Lennie grabbed a woman’s dress and she screamed “rape!,” the duo fled, seeking work at another ranch.
George and Lennie’s happiness hinges on a sliver of hopefulness - to save enough money, buy a small farm, and “live off the fat of the land”.
George tells Lennie he can have several rabbits, to care for, providing Lennie stays out of trouble, and they can earn enough to stake the farm.
When the duo arrives a day late at a ranch to “buck barley,” the boss (Bob Pitts) is suspicious of them, and warns George he’s keeping his eye on him.
So’s the boss’s recently-married son, Curley, (Glen Moore, who’s successfully reprieving his role with Moonbox Productions). Curley has a Napoleonic complex, and resents large guys. He continuously stomps around, shouting authoritatively, while jealously searching for his sexy, new wife (surprisingly mature, talented 14-year-old, Elle Shaheen of Portsmouth, NH). Curley’s wife is lonely, isolated on the ranch. She tells Lennie Curley is cruel and oftentimes leaves her alone. She intends to run away and fulfill her secret ambition to become an actress.
While Moore is convincing as surly, suspicious, swaggering Curley, Elle Shaheen as his wife belies her youth, delivering a poignant portrait of a young, pretty woman with stars in her eyes, but locked into a miserable marriage. The ranch hands think she’s a “tart,” with a roving eye for other men, so they shun her.
The play ends disastrously, with an air-shattering bang.
Stealing his own bows as handicapped worker Candy’s (Phil Esposito) smelly, ol’ pooch, is Elle’s fine-looking dog, Coach.
The cast is rounded out by Michael Bordenave as African-American, segregated ranch hand Crooks, who’s seeking a peaceful place to live with Lennie, George, and Candy; Charles Ferguson as kindly, ranch hand, Slim; Nathaniel Punches as Carlson and William Owens as Whit, who add dimension in this memorable, gut-wrenching production.
Kudos to Clark, BCT, the cast and crew for their critically cautious, searing production.
BOX INFO: Burgess Clark’s two-act stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, appearing with the Boston Children’s Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston: May 3, at 2 and 8 p.m., May 4, at 2 p.m.; Tickets:$25. Call 617-933-8600 or visit www.bostonchildrenstheatre.org.