Posted by: strugglesome | March 1, 2012

Gods and Monsters: People’s Light and Theatre Company presents Of Mice And Men

Much as it pains me to mention it, it is worth saying that not every story needs to be told on a stage. I would like to think that anything, any moment in life, any tale you can imagine, can be tossed on a stage like a Sabine woman and will delight and please its audience. And yes, you can put anything you like on a stage, after all,  It might be a fight like you see on the screen, A swain getting slain for the love of a queen, Some great Shakespearean scene, Where a ghost and a prince meet, And everyone ends in mincemeat…or something. I’m just throwing out ideas here. But that doesn’t mean that every story is well served by being dramatized. Sometimes it almost feels like you are abusing the story when you force it into the dramatic form, rather than illuminating it.

And that is the primary issue facing People’s Light and Theatre Company’s Of Mice and Men. It’s a story every high school student reads at least once, John Steinbeck’s classic novella which gives the reader a brief and painfully realistic window into the lives of a few lonely and hopelessly hopeful people living in a broken and beaten America during the great Depression. Of Mice and Men was, of course, tremendously successful as a play when it premiered in 1937. In fact, the intention of the work was to be a novella-play, a story that could be read as both novel and play. Steinbeck himself wrote the play adaptation used, though he never actually saw a live version of the production. It’s been a movie, 4 times, and even an opera, which boggles the mind.  But there is something about the way Steinbeck writes both place and person that presents a real challenge to a dramatic rendering. His imagery is so potent, so clear and sprinkled with dust and desperation, that it’s hard to feel a part of that landscape when it is surrounded by a proscenium arch, clean and artificial and distant from its observer.

The story is a quiet one, when all is said and done. Two migrant workers, the sharp and ambitious George (Pete Prior, who plays his role solidly if rather shallowly) and his constant companion, Lennie (Ian Bedford who is physically perfect if verbally verging on stereotypical), a mentally disabled giant with an affection for soft things, are looking for work in California. They arrive at a ranch somewhere in California, the one thing we know is that it isn’t Weed, because they left there in something of a hurry. Resting just outside the ranch, George and Lennie agree that most hired hands and migrant workers are “the loneliest guys there is”, but not them, because they have each other, a tiny island of two among a sea of solidarity men. But while they might dream of their own place, their own land, and rabbits, it is clear from the start that even these simple dreams are doomed from the start. For one thing, Lennie only really listens to George, and George can be everywhere at once. And for another, 1930’s California is not a world that looks kindly upon dreamers. Once at the ranch, the duo find allies in Slim the skinner (the nicely  dry Jerry Richardson) and the elderly crippled Candy (the wonderfully pathetic Peter DeLaurier), but also enemies, in the Boss (the nicely brusque Tom Teti)’s son Curly (an appropriately manic and distasteful Chris Faith) whose Napoleon complex leaves him bristling over Lennie’s massive size. Of course, Curly’s wife (a rather one-dimensional but appropriately coquettish Jessica Bedford), the unnamed sole female of the story, doesn’t help matters, as her desperate bids for attention leave the men on edge and Curly riled up. The tragedy haunting this small story lurks from the moment George and Lennie arrive, because it is clear that their unity as a pair is a surprise to the world. This is a lonely landscape where causal tragedies are copious, companionship isn’t valued and trust doesn’t exist. Joined by other farm hands like Whit (Andrew Kane) and Carlson (Mark Lazar) and our token person of color Crooks (an excellent Lou Ferguson), George and Lennie try to settle in and “make their stake”, the month’s worth of pay that could enable them to stop wandering and start really living.  But Lennie’s limited understanding of the world dooms them both, and forces one man to sacrifice the other, in an ending that is as inevitable as it is painful.

Marked with themes of personhood, racism, the politics of mental disability, economic strife and the fractured society of Depression era-America, Steinbeck’s short novel or long short story packs quite a punch, or perhaps the better analogy would be a glance. Because while an entire world is contained in this story, it’s a landscape, a window into a world and the events contained within in, not a slap in the face. And on many level’s David Bradley’s production works to create that effect. Staged sparsely on the massive main stage, Wilson Chin’s set includes a cleverly mobile element and the fakest haybales you may ever see, but otherwise morphs neatly from barn to bunkhouse and back again, with a scrim neatly tinged in morning golds and pinks and evening blues, courtesy of lighting designer Dennis Parichy. Costumes by Marla Juglanis are appropriately muted and historically accurate enough not to annoy the eye, and Curly’s wife is thread-perfect in brightly garish ensembles that hint at the period and are just clashing enough to look expensively cheap, just the kind of thing that would appeal to that character. Christopher Colucci’s sound, when it has a chance to be heard, is twangy and scores each black out neatly with a country air.

But while the design might be unified, and the cast  accomplished, the result is some how lacking in impact. Bradly paces the work slowly, perhaps in an effort to respect the silences within the novella, but the effect is more that of  static torpidity than significant stillness. The issue may be that there is a touch too much awareness in every actor with the exception of Ian Bedford, as if the whole cast is in a mildly perturbing horror film and they are all waiting for the inevitable event to occur. The tragedy in this story lies in the fact that it is inevitable to the reader but completely unforeseeable to the characters. That way, George’s final action, the sacrifice of his dear friend, also comes with the stunning realization that this moment was coming all along. But in this production it seems clear right from the start where this boxcar is heading, and the other characters watch Lennie stumble through his life with a sad certainty. In a play that is so inactive anyway, taking away our sense of dramatic irony leaves us rather cold.

In its totality, this is a well done nicely crafted interpretation of Steinbeck’s classic work. It might not shine in every aspect, but we can’t help but be effected by this story, it’s a classic for a reason. If only we could get a little closer to it we might feel it penetrate us more deeply. As it is, in this production, we watch it from a distance, like the view from a moving car, slightly blurred at the edges, but something worth looking at, nonetheless.

People’s Light and Theatre Company’s production of Of Mice and Men will be running until the 25th of March. Pick up tickets here.

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