Friends for Life

A staged version of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men remains quintessentially American.

The committee that awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1962 cited John Steinbeck for his "sympathetic humor and sociological perception" -- qualities that his detractors had long disparaged as little more than sappy sentimentalism and simplistic moralizing. Regardless which assessment is more valid, each suggests Steinbeck's ability to articulate both sides of an emotional issue: Whether he's artfully exposing the plight of Dustbowl farmers in The Grapes of Wrath or delivering a transparent sermon about declining morals in The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck invariably cuts to the heart of the matter by dramatizing the ordinary and poeticizing the everyday.

While the Morrison Theatre Company's Of Mice and Men doesn't always glisten with subtlety and texture, director Alan Osburn still evokes Steinbeck's message by encouraging portrayals that are as heartfelt and down-to-earth as a Frederic Remington painting. Some of the dialogue sounds quaint, and the story is fairly predictable (problems that, on opening night, were exacerbated by one spectator's full-voiced running commentary on various plot developments), but the celebrated novelist's plainspoken ode to friendship, which he adapted for Broadway in 1937, resonates with surprising tenderness and intensity.

Take, for instance, the symbiotic dynamic that develops between George Milton (Michael Wilson), a wiry streetwise drifter, and Lennie Small (Rick Bernstein), a mentally retarded, mostly gentle giant. Impoverished in the wake of the Great Depression, the seemingly mismatched "bindle bums" wander throughout the California farm country in search of odd jobs. Although Lennie's physical prowess and unchecked openness frequently land the pair in trouble, his childlike fascination with stories and fairy tales complements George's pipe dreams -- including one about saving up enough cash to purchase a ramshackle homestead. And while it seems as though their relationship won't survive the next bunkhouse scrape or misunderstanding, each man's peculiar strengths make up for the other's weaknesses. ("I've never seen one fella take so much trouble for another," one character says of George's protective nature.)

Until, that is, Lennie locks digits with Curley (Don Nyal), a posturing loudmouth whose father owns the ranch where George and Lennie secure temporary work. Peeved at Lennie's perpetually quizzical gaze, Curley, who lubricates one hand with Vaseline and wears a glove to keep his skin soft, smacks around the hapless man-child. Which prompts Lennie to shatter every bone in Curley's hand, earning Lennie some cautionary respect from Slim (Jim Vander Hooven), the good-hearted leader of the work crew, and Candy (Ken Witt), an aging, disabled cowpoke. Unfortunately, that act of self-defense also invites unwanted interest from Curley's wife (Kathy Kautz), whose trampy advances taint and ultimately destroy the purity of George and Lennie's friendship.

Despite the play's pervasive symbolism -- minor events invariably foreshadow larger ones, such as when Lennie smothers a field mouse early on, and one character kills a dog that's seen as being more trouble than it's worth -- the actors render naturalistic portrayals that brim with intuitive understanding. Bernstein, in particular, maintains a firm grip on his character's wide-eyed innocence and desire for human, even animalistic contact. Rather than emphasize Lennie's lumbering, slow-witted nature, Bernstein shows us a man who struggles to see the world with the same sort of supposed clarity as his bunkmates. His scene at the top of Act Two with the stoop-backed stable buck Crooks (K.W. Brock Johnson) is especially touching. He also fosters an intriguing relationship with George that eventually boils over into anguished frustration when Wilson cries, "Jesus Christ, Lennie, you can't remember nothin' that happens, but you remember every damn word I say!" And even though it's not entirely clear whether George is motivated by fear or love or both, Wilson conveys that ambivalence with sympathetic restraint. As the down-on-his-luck Candy, Witt locates his character's simple desire to lead a carefree life, one where he can go to a circus or ball game anytime he wants. And both Johnson and Vander Hooven imbue their portraits with understated strength and winning charm.

The play's last fifteen minutes would benefit from a greater urgency and crisper playing style, adjustments that would lend the two-and-a-quarter-hour drama a tragic twist of inevitability instead of the mawkishness of a pause-filled melodrama. And the timing of the final, heartrending sound effect will likely improve as the run progresses.

Minor worries aside, Osburn and company deliver a satisfactory, at times moving version of Steinbeck's tale, the title of which takes its inspiration from Scottish poet Robert Burns's line, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft a-gley" (which roughly translates as "oft-times go astray"). In this case, the actors' efforts, while not consistently illuminating, convey Steinbeck's ideas with two-fisted -- and quintessentially American -- candor.

 
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