Dramawork's Mice And Men Is Muted But Moving Revival
...The magic of this script, the actors' performances and the skill of director J. Barry Lewis communicate a yearning so intense that you can almost see the characters' hearts struggling to burst from their chests. And because the vagaries of life have treated these ordinary people so harshly, they do it while knowing better. Their hope makes them all the more noble and tragic... For those of you who cut class during American Lit in high school, Of Mice and Men is Steinbeck's 1937 novella based in part on his own wandering the farm of northern California. It tells of two men travelling from ranch to farm doing manual labor of any kind... George has been protecting Lennie for most of their lives although they are not relatives and the relationship has cost George a normal life. They are yoked together in a mutually beneficial, yet altruistic bond... But when you care about something in this world, it gives you something to lose... When they find their next job, the farm is populated with burly hands like the genial muleskinner Slim; Candy, the elderly cripple kept on out of charity; Curley, a bantam bully of a foreman, and his restless wife. Each cradles their modest dreams out of sight for fear that they might be mocked or that the very utterance aloud might expose it to the infectious dangers of the world... But human interaction for these universally lonely people can lead to both heartening and fatal results. The final scene – no spoilers here but most of you know what it is and if you didn't, Steinbeck has been setting you up for it for two hours as inevitable – is delicately and sensitively staged by Lewis... The list of Lewis' virtues just ought to be put on a computer macro to save time. His physical staging is seamless, consistent, silently evocative and absolutely invisible. His ability to elicit naturalistic and convincing performances is excelled only by his skill at helping the cast find the intent of every beat in the script. Throughout there is a consistent and discernible tone... ...this cast smoothly delivers even those almost bold-faced omens with sincerity and credibility. John Leonard Thompson's portrayal of George underscores his outstanding ability to draw a fully-realized human being without standing out while doing it. For regular Dramaworks' patrons, it will add to his reputation for versatility that encompasses the genially diffident minister in Candida, the addled brother in Lughnasa and the volcanic Teach in American Buffalo. His sharp-edged features echo George's wariness of having been ground down by life, but he remains tough as rawhide and still harbors enough humanity to stick with Lennie. Brendan Titley makes his Lennie as open-hearted as his round face, yet his simplicity seems organic, not an acting choice. He prevails over the tough challenge of making him lovable but not cloying. ...he has the child-like wonder down cold – especially in his scene when he meets Candy's dog by making playful faces with a new friend... Dennis Creaghan, the well-coiffed patrician of A Delicate Balance, makes an affecting grizzled coot in Candy who has lost a hand and is reduced to mucking out. He embodies someone trying desperately not to be discarded in a world that shoots wounded animals no longer able to fulfill their duties. Watching the light return to his eyes as he joins in the prospect of George and Lennie's dream is a joy. But most of the cast is that good: Cliff Burgess as the kindly Slim, Betsy Graver as the lonely restless wife, W. Paul Bodie as the crippled black stablehand, Wayne Steadman as the pragmatic colleague, Frank Converse (who appeared in Dramaworks' The Weir in 2009) as the boss, and Ricky Waugh who caresses Steinbeck's descriptive narration one moment and then credibly switches to a farmhand's twang. Christopher Halladay is all blustering glower as Curly... Production values are a hallmark of Dramaworks' offerings, but costume designer Leslye Menshouse has outdone herself with wardrobes that communicate individual characters as well as the environment... She adds little grace notes like a red bandanna hanging out of a back pocket or Curley's wife's silly gaudy shoes – totally out of place heels that she probably saw in a movie star magazine, adorned with lace and a fake red flower. Michael Amico's set design and Sage Neighbors' painting superbly convey the tone of the piece – a textured world of labor seen through weathered timbers and corrugated sheet metal that highlight the wear of unforgiving elements. As always, Amico finds precisely the right period props to decorate the rooms. Matt Corey's sound design encompasses his original music of a gently strummed acoustic guitar to subtly feathering in the sounds of nature emanating from different parts of the auditorium. John Hall's atmospheric lighting includes leaf-dappled chiaroscuro and golden sunsets pouring through the slats of the stable. A side note: Lewis enhanced the script with those descriptive narrations that cover scene changes, lyrical passages drawn directly from the text of the novella. It unquestionably eases the audience both into physical environment as well as sets the contemplative tone.