Lenny And The Mice
The Western Stage mounts a masterful production of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
Thursday, July 25, 2002
Photo by Richard Green.
Photo: Blood Brothers- Jeff McGrath (left) and Jim McLean plumb the depths of friendship in Of Mice and Men.
The challenges facing anyone who dares mount another production of John Steinbeck''s Of Mice and Men are considerable. There have been so many productions of the play-not to mention the three film versions, and that reading the play is a high school staple-that audiences can almost recite the show by heart; the script no longer has a surprise quotient. And, despite its apparently straightforward storytelling with almost archetypal characters, the script is remarkably subtle.
Happily, the director and cast of the current Western Stage production of Of Mice and Men are more than up to the challenge.
Director Richard Kuhlman''s approach to this production is openly theatrical. The set, designed by Dohn Grube, consists of an abstract river painted on the floor with some 10 or 12 hay bales that are moved about the stage to create different settings. The cast moves throughout the theater, breaking the fourth wall (to the extent that at one point Lenny is climbing the handrails, virtually in the audience''s lap) and some of the props in the small confines of the theater look exactly like what they are-stuffed toys doubling for Lenny''s various doomed pets. Kuhlman seems to be challenging the audience to suspend its disbelief. To be successful, it''s an approach that requires strong performances from all actors-and Kuhlman gets them.
Almost every character in the show gets a chance to shine, with some sort of speech that defines his or her character; it''s almost like a concert with each instrument getting a chance to solo. In a weak production of the show, this stands out almost as a disjointed weakness in the script. Here, the speeches are so convincingly delivered that the show sounds like a symphony.
As George, Jeff McGrath delivers a performance that captures all the dedication and frustration that his character feels toward his dim-witted friend and ward, Lenny. He wrests a full range of feelings from the character. When, exasperated, he complains that he could live a life so easy and free if it were not for Lenny''s presence, McGrath lets us see that it''s not just a complaint, it''s an ache that comes from somewhere deep inside.
Lenny is no less complicated a character to play, and Jim McLean delivers a masterful performance. Lenny is a doubly cursed character: Not only is he dumb, he knows that he''s dumb. McLean plays the levels of frustration that this knowledge brings to Lenny like an instrument.
As Candy, the old man who comes to share George and Lenny''s dream of owning their own farm, William Wolack is as convincing in conveying his desperation as he is in showing a strange courage to take up a new dream. As the young Whit, Dan Tarker has a great time describing the glories of Suzy''s whorehouse. And Mayol Simpson, in the role of Crooks, the black stablebuck who''s exiled to the barn, gives rich depth to a character who''s both angry about his exile and yearning to be accepted by the men who have exiled him.
Jessica Stevenson, as the flirtatious wife of Curley (Colin Carvey), the ranch''s unrepentantly cruel manager, begins with a performance that seems too hard and brittle for us to ever care about her. But, by the time she crawls into the hayloft with Lenny, Stevenson has turned those brittle characteristics into an armor shielding the wounded woman beneath-and we do care about her.
Visually, there are many moments where it''s obvious that director Kuhlman was intentionally striving for striking images-particularly in the scene between Lenny and Curley''s wife. But there was one briefest of moments, with Curley''s wife swirling through the bunkhouse of men, all in hot pink and the focus of the scene, and Lenny is sitting on the ground; as she whirls past him, we get a brief glimpse of Lenny''s hand tremulously starting to reach out for her dress. That instant is visually perfect. Not only does it speak volumes about the characters and situation, but it''s also a testament to the strength of the director''s staging and the actors'' dedication to their characters.
It doesn''t matter how many times you''ve already seen or read Of Mice and Men. Go see this memorable production at the Western Stage.