OF MICE AND MEN
Tri "R" Productions
at the Chicago Studio for Dance and Musical Theatre
I haven't really thought about Of Mice and Men since I read it in the seventh grade. I remember weeping, and I suppose life would be simpler if I still could, but I find that Steinbeck's tale of migrant farm workers in Depression-era California has not weathered well for me. This judgment is based on a production I saw recently, mounted by Tri "R" Productions and directed by Roger R. Truesdell. Just over two and a half hours long, this slow-moving retelling gave me plenty of time to sit back, dry-eyed, and marvel over Steinbeck's mastery of the emotional cheap shot; I also began wondering whether easy sentimentality and a smattering of misogyny are among the criteria for American classics.
George and Lennie travel from ranch to ranch together, their friendship a hedge against the deathly loneliness of the migrant worker's life. They claim to look out for each other, but clearly George is the one who shoulders most of the responsibility, and the hulking, simpleminded Lennie is relegated to the status of a beloved but bothersome Saint Bernard. At Lennie's insistence, George often outlines their dream of one day owning their own bit of property where they can raise crops and rabbits and "live off the fat of the land." It's a cozy dream of Home and Dignity, made more pathetic by the overwhelming odds against their ever attaining it--odds apparent to all but the dreamers themselves, particularly the childlike Lennie.
It's the role of Lennie that most disturbs me. He functions less as a character than as a sympathy sponge; Steinbeck asks us to invest emotionally in this sweet-natured, mildly retarded giant and then proceeds to mop the floor with him. Rodney G. Woodworth delivers a very sincere performance, but he doesn't go beyond the cod-mouthed, wide-eyed, stuttering child-man portrayal that seems to be standard for any actor playing a mentally handicapped person. Robert John Keating, on the other hand, plays the laconic George as though he were in the last reel of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, muttering his lines through a clenched Bogart grimace that's a substitute for genuine intensity. Woodworth's interpretation of Lennie may not be very original, but at least it's honest.
Admittedly Steinbeck gives the actors little to work with. The ranch is populated by stereotypes: the cold, contemptuous Boss (Brooks Darrah), the bitter black stable hand (Gregory Johnson), an old coot named Candy (Bob Eaton), the Boss's pugnacious son Curley (Steven Waste), and the noble mule skinner Slim (Rick Giampaolo, in the most understated and interesting performance of the show).
Then there's Curley's wife (Amy Schultz), who is never given a name or a chance but is roundly mistrusted and reviled by the men because she tries to be friendly with them and they fear Curley's jealous temper. Little more than a plot device, Curley's wife is mostly expected just to act the tramp; her one opportunity for a glimmer of humanity plays as nothing more than feminine vanity, when she tells Lennie she plans to be a movie star. Soon thereafter Lennie breaks her neck, but he's as blameless as a saint--it's an accident that never would have happened if Curley's wife hadn't insisted on mixing with the menfolk. When the ranch hands find her body in the barn, their sympathy is with Lennie. "The poor bastard," one of them says, barely glancing at the broken body of the woman in the hay.
This show, which evolved from a production originally mounted by the Beverly Theatre Guild, is a cut above the usual community theater fare, but it's still not slick or imaginative enough to compete with most of the other non-Equity shows in town. Marked by dull pacing and performances that range from stiff to heavy-handed, it's easily enlivened by the appearance of Candy's dog: a confused golden retriever clumsily streaked with clown white to indicate age. We feel terrible when the dog is led off to be shot (a blatant foreshadowing), but not for the usual sentimental reasons. Mostly it's because he's the only living thing onstage.