Bringing a well-loved, late 1930s classic to today’s stage is challenging. With so many storied productions (Broderick Crawford created the role of gentle, deranged giant Lennie in 1937; famously, Lon Chaney Jr. reprised the role opposite Burgess Meredith’s “caregiver” George for the 1939 film; John Malkovich paired with Gary Sinise for the widely-acclaimed 1992 screen version) with which to compare, there’s a risk of falling short to proven excellence.
Happy to report that Studio Arena’s production of John Steinbeck’s grippingly horrendous tale of squashed dreams hits more than it misses and demonstrates conclusively why the preponderance of entertainment over art that fills our stages, screens and PDAs has succeeded in dumbing down a significant proportion of the ticket-buying public.
Jeffrey Evan Thomas’ Lennie is a marvel of understated innocence and self-awareness of his ability to do “bad things.” Gesture, tone and timing meld into a thoroughly credible depiction of a being who, at various decades since he first stroked a dead mouse in the imagination of his brilliant creator, would be called retarded, slow, handicapped, brain damaged, disabled or a certified lunatic. Yet his greatest gift is the ability to love unconditionally, forever dreaming of a place where he could bag alfalfa and “tend the rabbits.”
George, his keeper, constant companion and friend—as played by Harry Carnahan—demonstrates just the right balance of compassion and quiet anger. The two migrant workers travel from job to job, taking comfort in each other’s honesty and company. Their relationship is pivotal to the unfolding tragedy; as a team they drive the action forward convincingly. Yet many in the audience on opening night found this partnership in general (“Oh, so it’s that way” drew Will & Grace giggles) and Lennie’s description of how he inadvertently crushes animals to death (“pinched their heads”) as cause for guffaws.
This unwanted reaction was not the result of any let’s-make-this-more-relevant-to-our-century’s-same-sex-follies-or-torture-from-Iraq-clip fiddling on director Seth Gordon’s part but the apparent truth that many in the seats had no idea as to what this tale was about. But, no worries, we’re having an evening at the theatre so there’s got to be some big laughs lurking somewhere in the barnyard.
No, not yuks but a number of supporting roles that interact on many planes with the ill-fated pair. Chet Carlin serves up the one-handed Candy with long-serving wisdom if a few stumbling lines. Early on, the love of his miserable life (an-equally worn-out dog, for this production a Pembroke Corgi that looked far too healthy to convince, but can dogs be made up?) is put to death by a bullet to the head to rid the help’s bunkhouse of the stench.
At the other end of the scent scale is a flirtatious, wannabe showgirl (Amanda Rowan, too Monroe by half) who delights in stirring up the men with her strong perfume and open season bust. Trouble is, she’s also married to the owner’s son, Curley. Vayu O’Donnell is easily believable as the boxer-trained heir, but needs to dig a little deeper to sell the red-hot rage that a crushed-hand loser and a sudden widower must feel.
Literally rising above it all is the sole black character, Cooks. The self-described “nigger” (refreshing to hear the “n” word left in the script as it was intended, not succumbing to the political correctness that may have left the same queer-speculation chucklers morally outraged) is doomed to live in a separate room above a manure pile and reduced to reading books while his white colleagues go whoring in town or play euchre amongst themselves. Wiley Moore is pitch perfect as the lonely, dark-skinned journeyman; his scene with Lennie is a knockout as two of society’s outcasts establish a bond that only the systemically disenfranchised can.
Behind the scenes, nearly everything works beautifully. Hugh Landwehr’s set is economic, Waiting-for Godot sparse (Act I) and deliciously detailed (Crooks’ trappings) as required. There’s a faint echo of Blazing Saddles’ campfire after the marvelous “You feel free when you ain’t got a job” line and a need for the so appropriately cowboy attired stagehands to sweep up the last straw prior to the final scene, but with David Kay Mickelsen’s period-appropriate costumes and the twang and feel from James C. Swonger’s music tracks, “we are there.” The soundscape could only be improved by lowering the volume of the riverside insect chorus and losing the Owl’s aural reinforcement of the word “hoot.”
Gordon, his energetic cast and talented crew have fashioned a production that seldom loses track of its direction and goal. Those who’d no idea how this deeply-layered testament to loving care resolves had any notion of “fun and frolic amongst the guys” forever squelched; the rest of us can only revel again in a conclusion that is equally understanding and unthinkable. JWR