Corrections or additions?

This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the

September 22, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights

reserved.

Review: ‘Of Mice and Men’

It’s nighttime and George and Lennie have stopped to rest

on a sandy bank of the Salinas River. The stage, however,

is soon transfigured into designer Marion Williams’s

awesome evocation of a crudely constructed bunkhouse and

barn where the migrants mingle and sleep. It is here that

George hopes to earn enough money to secure his dream of

buying his own farm and where Lennie’s dream can be summed

up with the immortal line, "We’ll live off the fat of the

land."

John Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men" is not meant to

represent a timeless microcosm of life among American

migrant workers during the 1930s, as does his later novel

"The Grapes of Wrath." It does, however, create its own

small world with a highly stylized vision of truth. In

some ways, it is as far removed from reality as the

screwball film comedies from the same era. This doesn’t

mean that this tale of two drifters adrift between reality

and fantasy has become a fossilized relic.

As if to prove that this world between reality and fantasy

is as resonant today as ever, Joe Discher has staged a

sturdily humanized production for the Shakespeare Theater

of New Jersey. It works mainly because it fully embraces

the central meaningful relationship within the play. This

is the dimension of the plot that remains universal rather

than the predictably tragic plot or the one dimensional

supporting characters.

It is also fortunate that Graham Winton, as George, and

Mark Mineart, as Lennie have sought to go one step beyond

the more obvious and stereotypical models for their

characters. Because of this, the core of the play – the

strange but symbiotic relationship of two unwitting

victims of the times – is able to support the weaker

circumference, the vision of a social system empowered by

greed and materialism.

Like Steinbeck’s novel, his play version is tied to the

novel’s structure as dramatic literature, with each

chapter a different scene. A few months after the

publication, Steinbeck began work on the stage adaptation

with George S. Kaufman, who would also direct the original

production, which opened on Broadway less than a year

after the novel’s publication on November 23, 1937

Taking its title inspiration from Robert Burns’ poem "To a

Mouse" (that "the best-laid schemes of mice and men" often

go awry), the play takes place over a three-day period on

a ranch in an agricultural valley in Northern California

during the Depression.

Whether Lennie may have actually been kicked in the head

by a horse as a child (used by George as an excuse for

Lennie), or was just born as if he had been, Mineart’s

depiction of an overgrown oaf with an obsession for

petting small furry animals and soft sensual fabrics, is

deeply moving. Tall, large-framed and virtually bald,

Mineart, who is making his Shakespeare Theater debut,

holds our attention by the sheer substance of his

portrayal. Whether becoming agitated by the goading of the

stable hand, or becoming sexually aroused by the

insinuating moves of a beautiful woman, Mineart makes it

easy for us to respond empathetically to the simplicity of

Lennie’s basic needs.

As keeper of the flame and Lennie’s fraternal protector,

Winton shows that amount of inner tenderness and outward

strength that gives this pivotal character its principal

resonance. The scenes in which Lennie and George talk and

dream of owning a farm together are touching indeed and

easily validate their friendship and the support they

bring to each other.

The excellence of Discher’s direction is even more notable

in the way he seems to have encouraged the more

emotionally disconnected migrant workers around them to

exist as distinct and illuminating worlds unto themselves.

The play reaches its most dramatic detour when a series of

tragic accidents occur involving Curley (Marc Aden Gray),

the farm’s bullying foreman, and Curley’s skittish wife

(Victoria Mack). While the most important element in the

play is the empathy that is mustered for Lennie and

George, the strong impression made by the supporting cast

is significant. Red-haired wiry Gray is a combustible

bundle of nerves as the neurotically bad-tempered Curley.

Mack presents a provocative image of a manipulative

coquette without turning her into a cheap floozy.

Paul Niebanck fuels his role as Slim, the mule team

foreman, with an appealing mix of compassion and virility.

Notwithstanding the dying old dog and companion he drags

along with him, Jim Mohr targets our hearts as the

physically handicapped Candy, whose memory of his visit to

a swank cat house 20 years ago deserves the applause it

gets. Joe Mancuso, as the Boss, Michael Daly, as the

feisty Carlson, Chris Landis, as the youthful Whit, and

Brice, as the embittered Crooks, contribute mightily to

the reality.

Written one year before his masterpiece, "The Grapes of

Wrath," but acknowledged as a stunning testament to the

migrant workers who work with the dream of a better life,

"Of Mice and Men" is all about what Steinbeck saw first

hand as a young man. What he created remains true to this

day, and is only more global in its reach in light of the

rampant exploitation by U.S. companies of native workers

in foreign countries.

– Simon Saltzman

Of Mice and Men. The Shakespeare Theater of NJ, on the

campus of Drew University in Madison. Through Sunday,

October 3. $26 to $48. Call 973-408-5600.


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