JWR Articles: Live Event - Of Mice and Men (Director: Martha Henry) - August 21, 2007
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Of Mice and Men

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Feelings, feeling, feels

The heady combination of John Steinbeck, Graham Greene and Martha Henry have come together in a miracle of emotion, skill and subtle craft that makes the Stratford Festival’s production of Of Mice and Men the pick of the crop for the 2007 season. Don’t miss it!

Steinbeck’s 1937 novella/play gains increased relevance and meaning with every senseless slaughter, racial indignity or fit of jealousy that keeps the most civilized planet in unending turmoil. What the words on the page lack (as powerful as they are on their own) are the larger-than-death realities of the truly terrific tale when brought to life on the stage.

Like any classic, to embark on yet another rendition risks much: comparison to previous attempts (cross-reference below), finding something “new” to say and, like Grand Opera, assembling the ideal cast to realize the artistic trust’s vision.

Almost single-handedly, Greene’s Lennie Small drives this magnificent version—beginning with his parched gulp from a stagnant stream to his horrifyingly-loving dispatch on the same banks two-and-a-half hours later. The veteran actor digs far beneath the difficult role’s skin with all-too-rare depth, insight and passion for the downtrodden, mentally “challenged” (the most recent “politically correct” descriptor replacing slow, retarded and touched) gentle giant. His childlike giggle, wide-eyed joy with the prospect of his own rabbit farm and sudden eruptions of devastating force ignite the proceedings, rivet the audience and—happily—spill over to further inspire his considerably talented colleagues.

After the disappointing foray as Shylock in this year’s Merchant of Venice (cross-reference below), the too-often misunderstood notion that it’s the director who makes or breaks the performance of any actor is demonstrated conclusively.

Thank goodness for Martha Henry. In her program notes she wonders aloud if a woman can “… direct a work by such a masculine writer as Steinbeck?” Most assuredly, yes.

Similar to Franco Zeffirelli (cross-references below) her presence can be seen (if not literally heard) in every frame. The Italian master of cinematic/operatic gesture has, in this outing, a soul mate in the theatre. All of which has to do with feelings (inner) that are sparked by actual feelings (Lennie delights in stroking anything soft or furry; the boss’s son Curley—Brian Hamman—keeps one hand immersed in a Vaseline-filled glove so as to place nary a scratch on his whore-of-the-ranch new wife—Jennifer Mawhinney).

These deft touches glue the scenes together with a compelling and growing emotional undercurrent that will incredibly burst its banks with a single shot.

Lennie starts everything off with his digital love for a dead (murdered) mouse. Hours later, in the bunkhouse where Lennie and George have just been hired on, one-hand Candy (Jerry Franken) pets his stinking, toothless dog (Jasmine) with enduring tenderness that only long acquaintance can bring. At every opportunity, Curley’s wife touches and lifts her flimsy garments in hopes she’ll be noticed by the equally lonely men and “talked to.” Henry encourages the shapely blond to heat up every appearance so when the inevitable moment where she places Lennie’s quivering hand on her golden locks, her sudden demise comes as small surprise and puts her mental capacity on the same plane as the unwitting “teasee.”

Equally touching is the segregated nigger, Crooks (Philip Akin, in the famous invasion-of-my-room-above-the-manure-pile scene feeds off Greene to produce some of the show’s finest moments). Nursing a ravaged back (nearly everyone has some kind of physical impairment or psychological scar), he is reduced to self-massaging his injured back and—habitually—stomach; a subliminal physical metaphor for his systemic isolation.

Yet the greatest touch of all comes from George (Nicolas Van Burek). Much is left unsaid (although mockingly insinuated by Curley: “Oh, so you’re that way.”) about the basis for George’s relationship with the largely harmless simpleton. Steinbeck offers few clues, preferring, as is his wont, to let the reader/theatregoer come to their own conclusions. But once, in the early going, then tellingly in the final “look-to-the-future-we’ll-never-have” dialogue, George lovingly dries Lennie’s neck and affectionately rubs his powerful shoulders all the while knowing what he must do to protect his constant companion from Western justice (meted out with a German Luger). The intimacy of this tough-love gesture (echoing the earlier putting down of Jasmine) resonates far longer than the explosive blast, and fully unleashes the awful truth of what can transpire when marginalized human beings are left to fend for themselves.

Steinbeck, Greene and Henry feel this instinctively and infuse those painful realizations into both the players and, in turn, those fortunate enough to share their space in a truly unforgettable way. JWR

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