"OF MICE AND MEN"
by John Steinbeck
Directed by Robert Walsh
Set by Charles F. Morgan
Costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley
Lighting by L. Stacy Eddy
Sound by Marc Plevinsky
Peter Robinson ........ Lennie Small
Thomas Kee ........ George Milton
Ed Peed ........ Candy, the old swamper
Ed Byrnes ........ The Boss
Peter Darrigo ........ Curley, his son
Laura Latreille ........ Curley's Wife
Douglas Griffin ........ Slim, the Muleskinner
Jasper McGruder ........ Crooks, the Black Stableman
John Porell ........ Carlson, a Swede
Christopher Brophy ........ Whit
It is a mistake to think of John Steinbeck's novels as realistic, despite his sharpely-observed American characters sprung from the Great Depression and the last exodus West. The play he crafted from his shorter novel. "Of Mice and Men", shortly after its publication in 1937, is a American tragedy on par with the work of O'Neill before him and Miller after, symbolic of the times, universal in its lament. The production currently onstage at the recently renovated Stoneham Theatre is a highly effective contemporary rendering of this classic. It owes a bit to the style pioneered by Steppenwolf in their landmark "Grapes of Wrath" staging, directed by Gary Sinese, and perhaps a little to the movie of "Mice and Men" he directed starring himself and John Malkovitch, using a screenplay by Horton Foote which preserved most of Steinbeck's original dialogue. There's a promise of something special when entering the hall. Charles F. Morgan's abstract set of arching barn timbers, from which hang shreds of greenery looms over a slightly raked stage. There's a sense of heat in the reflection which dapples the cyc. When the house lights and stage fade to black, George's voice recites the poetic opening which sets the scene alone the river in the Salinas Valley. As the lights fade up two weary figures, one bigger than the other, are silhouetted against the sky. George and Lennie, (Tom Kee and Peter Robinson) dressed in tattered farm clothes come down to the edge of the stage to mime drinking from the river. Their tale has begun
They've come to the end of their journey. This pair, bonded by some indefinable past history, had to leave their last job ahead of a mob, and spend a day hiding in a drainage ditch because of simple Lennie's inability to control his urge to pet soft things. George impresses upon him that this spot by the river is where he must come and hide in the brush if he ever gets in trouble again, as everyone watching knows he will. But in this first prologue scene, the two friends spend one last night free under the stars, eating beans (without ketchup) out of the can and dreaming of one day "living off the fat of the land." The play proceeds much as everyone who's reads the novel remembers. Steinbeck's adaptation eliminates only his atmospheric asides and a few supernatural elements. The dialogue is sparse and full of the poetry of the vernacular. Director Robert Walsh has pulled his cast of local and regional professionals into an ensemble which doesn't miss a beat. Kee and Robinson, a wiry guy and his big friend, embody their characters from their first entrance to the inevitable finale. Just how big isn't obvious until Lennie meets the rest of the cast. Ed Peed's Candy is a likable old codger drawn into their fantasy of a little farm of their own--with rabbits. Douglass Griffin is fully believable as Slim, from his worn boots to the gloves in his belt, not to mention a voice full of the West. Jason McGruder, who plays a mean blues harmonica, has one of the most powerful scenes in the play as he unbends his soul to innocent Lennie. The big man has wandered into the old stableman's segregated room in the barn following the music, and gets an earful of Crook's bitterness.
Ed Brynes plays the Boss without falling into caricature, while Peter Darrigo makes his scrappy half-pint son, Curley, into a believable mean S.O.B., always ready to come to blows. The sequence where this runt beats on hapless Lennie, who tries to follow George's admonition not to fight, is astounding. Lennie's crushing Curley's hand while holding him at bay the signal that fate is hard at work. But of course, the real problem is Curley's bored wife, a part which Laura Latreille plays with believable innocence. She's lonely, and knows men will talk to her, even if her husband can't. Her end is a minor tragedy, not a comeuppance.
Morgan's set has just enough changeable elements; some simple slatted sliding panels and rough furniture to suggest the bunkhouse and a few other interiors. Adding some hay in one corner, and careful lighting by L. Stacy Eddy turns that area into an effective bier for Latreille at the climax. And mournful harmonica music plus a few atmospheric sounds serves to bridge the scene changes, which were the only part of the action needing tightening early in the run. All the technical elements, plus Gail Astrid Buckley's accurate costuming, help make this production memorable. Sophocles wrote "Count no man happy until he's dead." Our Will wrote, "There's a fortune shapes men's souls, rough-hew them how they will" Burns wrote "the lives of mice and men gang aft aglay". Steinbeck wrote this story. Whether or not you're moved by inevitability or resigned to the human condition, you'll be sorry if you miss this one.