Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the
September 22, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights
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
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
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
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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