Is there anyone who doesn't remember the two central figures in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men — quick-witted, enterprising George and his friend Lennie, who possesses a child's mind in the body of a hulking, preternaturally strong man, and who tends to kill small, smooth-furred things like mice and rabbits by petting them too hard? We never know exactly how the relationship between the pair began, or what emotional bonds continue to cement it, but George is as perpetually occupied in protecting and controlling his friend as any mother with a four-year-old. Scraping a living as itinerant farm workers — or bindle stiffs — the men sustain themselves with a dream of a ten-acre farm, apple trees, pigs and rabbits for Lennie to tend, a place where they can be self-sufficient and control their own lives. But the bitter poverty of the rural world they inhabit shreds dreams and constricts lives. Since Steinbeck published his novella in 1937 (he said he was aiming for "a play that can be read or a novel that can be played"), George and Lennie have embedded themselves in the popular imagination; they've been parodied in cartoons and referenced in fiction, song and TV shows. The image that opens the Arvada Center's Of Mice and Men — Lennie, seated on a river bank, jealously guarding a decomposing mouse as George tries to pry it away from him — seems almost archetypal.
But the focus isn't only on George and Lennie. We encounter other compelling characters, most particularly tough-minded, thoughtful Slim, who serves as the workingmen's moral arbiter; a tormented woman known only as Curley's Wife, trapped in an all-male world and attempting to use her sexuality to gain kindness and attention; and the friendly, talkative old farmhand, Candy, who's accompanied wherever he goes by the ancient dog he raised from a puppy. We also glimpse another and even deeper degree of loneliness, that of Crooks (Chaz Grundy), a black farmhand with a crippled back whose doubled isolation is slowly driving him mad. The play communicates the pitiless realities of life in 1930s America, the strain of living in bug-infested quarters and working someone else's land until your body breaks — with the fate of Candy's dog a graphic reminder of the value placed on a non-productive life.
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The story unfolds with a pleasing symmetry and the kind of writerly skill your English teacher loved bringing to your attention in high school — three acts on each side of the intermission, foreshadowing (we know from the first mention of Lennie's rotting mouse that this won't end well), artfully artless repetition, Candy's missing hand echoed by Curley's mangled one, the action framed by two shattering and decisive gunshots.
Director Terry Dodd has done well by the text. Of Mice and Men is set in Northern California, and, as in Plainsong (now showing at the Denver Center), a sense of place is crucial to its meaning and poetry. Dodd has woven the sound of birdsong and rushing water into the action and set it on a convincingly detailed set (designed by Brian Mallgrave) that shows the rough-hewn structure of the bunkhouse, the rushes by the river and Crooks's shack. He has also assembled an excellent cast, and every one of them performs with conviction. Kent Burnham is a strong George; this is a guy who'd know how to play all the angles if he weren't burdened by his overgrown child of a friend, and you can see him veering continually between affection and irritation. You might think of Lennie as slow-moving and thick-tongued, but Patrick Brennan doesn't play it that way. He gives the role a truly original goofiness — jerky movements, staccato speech, a kid's open-mouthed laugh. For all his innocence, this isn't an entirely likable Lennie, and you can't help pondering the rage and possessiveness that may underlie his destruction of so many small animals. (By contrast, when Bill Christ — whose absence from the Denver theater scene I'm still lamenting — played the role in New York, a critic commented, "Mr. Christ is a poetic Lennie of a misunderstood goodness that must be next to God...")
Of Mice and Men
Presented by the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities through March 9, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org.
It's impossible not to feel sympathy for Louis Schaefer's Candy, because Schaefer makes the old man's loss and pain, his doomed, squirming attempts to ingratiate himself, so utterly vivid. As played by C. Kelly Leo, Curley's Wife is a woman filled with twisted emotion and aching with loneliness. Other standout performances come from Marcus Waterman in the small but telling role of The Boss — how does he manage to make his every entrance and utterance so hateful? — and Mark Rubald as Slim, a man radiating pure kindness through a hardened pragmatic exterior.
Of Mice and Men is a period piece, and that's how this group plays it. But it's precisely because of the production's fidelity to a specific time and place that it feels universal. The men and women who live in crowded, unsanitary conditions and work our fields for minuscule wages these days tend to be immigrants, and they're as invisible and despised as Steinbeck's itinerants were. No doubt a writer will eventually rise from their ranks to express their suffering and humanity in burning words — and we can only hope that by then we'll be able to hear them.