John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a classic, and for good reason – very few authors have gotten utter loneliness as pitch-perfect as he did with his slim tale of George and Lennie. And although I love the book, there’s something about seeing it performed – whether in film format (John Malkovich and Gary Sinise gutted me in the 1992 version) or on stage – that gives it such heartbreaking immediacy.
George and Lennie (Joseph Bruton and Daniel B. Martin) are itinerant ranch workers during the Great Depression. George takes care of Lennie, who is mentally handicapped. They dream of saving up enough money to buy a small house together, where they will garden, raise animals, and “live off the fat of the land.” They start work on a ranch in California, hoping it will be steady enough work to make their dreams come true, and find others who share in their dream, bringing it closer to reality – until tragedy strikes.
The show hangs on Bruton and Martin – their relationship needs to be believable and we need to truly care about them and their inevitable fate for it to work. Lennie is not an easy character to play; it’s all too easy for it to slip into caricature. Martin does well, with only some moments that are a bit over the top, and brings genuine pathos to the role. Bruton is a little harder to pin down. He is best in his interactions with Martin but seems a different person with the other ranch hands; this may be a character choice, but it seems an odd one for George, so strong in his convictions. Their final scene together is brutally effective, however, and kudos to them for that.
Aileem Penn, as Crooks, the African-American stable hand who is shunned by most of the men, gives a powerful performance; almost understated in his restraint, but simmering with years of pent-up rage. Hannah Jay, as Curley’s Wife, is also strong; her performance drove home to me, even more so than the number of times I’ve seen and read the piece, that she’s one of the most tragic characters, yet she goes almost completely overlooked – unnamed, a running joke among the men, possibly more lonely than they are and, even after her fate is revealed, still reviled for something she didn’t do.
The main problems with this particular production are pacing and lines; a good half-hour could have been trimmed if the actors had picked up their cues in a timely fashion and not repeated the same lines over and over trying to help each other get back on track. Other than a few exceptions, the actors seemed to be adrift and needed a stronger hand directorially.
We talk a lot about loneliness these days, and how it’s taking a toll on us, but it’s clear that this isn’t a modern epidemic – we can see through Steinbeck’s lens that we’re not alone, and never have been, and what a wonderful reason to go to the theater.
“Of Mice and Men,” Classic Theater Guild, Congregation Beth Israel, 2195 Eastern Parkway, Schenectady, March 8-18, $20-$18, Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, http://classictheaterguild.com/