“Ain’t many guys travel around together. I don’t know why. Maybe everybody in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”
Expressed one of the major themes in the outstanding stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which previewed on June 19th at the Eclectic Theatre. Now a staple of high school English classes, Of Mice and Men, was extremely controversial and often banned when it was first published in 1937 as a “play-novellette”. While it was still on the best-seller list as a novella, it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as a play in 1938, and was adapted by the author himself.
Although written during the Great Depression, Steinbeck drew on his experiences as a “bindlestiff” or migrant ranch worker in the 1920’s for the setting of his two main characters, George and Lennie. George and Lennie, are fundamentally unlike other migrant workers because in traveling together they have a shared past and share a future dream, something which the solo migrant workers lack.
George is the rural equivalent of street-wise, intelligent, not without compassion, but cruel at times. A strong giant of a man, Lennie is emotionally and mentally challenged, creating a vulnerability to exploitation which has caused huge problems for George in the past. Both are caught, like many others of the time, in a concentration camp culture due to economic circumstance. Life on the road is difficult; life when they get work is equally difficult just like prison with daily hourly struggles to survive menaced by powerful individuals as well as physical realities. And there are, of course, the problems caused by George’s man’s body and five-year old maturity.
In this highly insightful play the theme of friendship as a survival tool while combating sheer unadulterated evil is explored again and again. In addition, Crooks, played by Tee Dennard, the only Black man employed on the ranch, but living in segregated living quarters ( in the barn actually) articulates the profound devastation of human isolation. Dennard’s performance was sad but highly amusing at the same time.
The co-dependent relationship between George and Lennie illustrates the advantages and disadvantages of close relationships. George is fully aware that Lennie cannot survive on his own; he would be lynched or thrown into a torture chamber like institution if George were not there. George is equally aware that Lennie creates life-threatening problems for George, but when all is said and done, he would rather share his life with someone than suffer isolation.
A large part of their shared experience is the dream, they both come to believe, of someday getting enough money together to have a farm of their own, where they will both feel safe. Lennie’s passion for having something soft to pet which won’t be destroyed by his strength will be realized by raising rabbits. George’s need to get away from the sadistic bosses, economic instability and chronic dangers inherent in protecting Lennie will be met.
Since they keep verbally repeating this dream, almost like a bedtime story, by chance it almost becomes a reality when they meet Candy, a truly decent person with the cash to make it happen. Unfortunately, the whole plan is blown to smithereens by insecure individuals exploiting Lennie’s vulnerabilities.
On every level this is an outstanding production of a truly great play. Usually adaptations are tricky; however, Steinbeck structured the novella in such a way that the dialogue , written in authentic white rural dialect, carries it. The plot moves right along; the exposition is swift, the foreshadowing is clever. Fortunately, all the actors managed to get the accent right, so that the accent matched the way the dialect was written.
Although it takes place in depressing circumstances, Steinbeck chose characters who are trying to shape their own destinies, they are not defeated by their circumstances, so there is a lot of hope as we root for George, Lennie and their newfound friend, Candy.
The brilliant director, Kim Deskin, assembled an excellent cast. Stand outs were Michael Andrew Scott as George Milton, who played a well-rounded character, not a saint by any means, but a man with honor and compassion. Gavin Sakae McLean, as Lennie, brought all the pathos, charm and utter confusion of a young child in the body of a giant.
Candy, an endearing one-handed old farm-hand, superbly played by Will Rose, brought the essential decency of an elderly man who wants to help other people realize their dreams, while finding a dignified place to retire-something in scarce supply before the New Deal.
Curley’s wife, played by Justine Rose Stillwell, had a touching performance as the flirty wife of the farm manager’s son. Although a major protagonist in Lennie’s demise, superficially she is not a sympathetic character, however, Stillwell exuded the emotional vulnerability and loneliness below the surface. Like George and Candy she was a character who tried to forge her own destiny.
The scene where she and Lennie try to talk to each other but actually just engage in two interrupted monologues was heart-wrenching and one of the best scenes in a perfectly brilliant play.
One of the creative touches of the evening, which made this such a fantastic production, was the music by Reggie Miles, who played Folk/Blues Guitar before and during the show, which was absolutely authentic depression era music and underscored the performances dramatically.
This was a truly great production of a great American classic. Get your tickets right away, the theatre doesn’t have many seats!
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Eclectic Theatre, Produced under the auspices of the Actors’ Equity Association Members Project Code. 1214-10th Ave. Seattle, WA (206) 679-3271 Fri, Sat 8 pm June 19th to July 12th , Mon. July 7th, 8 pm. 1214-10th Ave South Capitol Hill ( Pike/Pine ) Seattle 98122 www.eclectictheatercompany.org. http://www.brownpapertickets.com/producer/1913