"Of Mice and Men"
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
Is John Steinbeck’s 1937 drama “Of Mice and Men” a visit to the long-forgotten past or an omen of things to come? Will we replicate the Great Depression in the coming years? Whatever the case, the fine production now playing at the Westport Country Playhouse is a chilling experience.
Not that the show does not have its flaws. Not that the play does not feel dated at times. But the production itself, under Mark Lamos’ inspired direction, is highly effective. “Mice” opens with the two leads—George and Lenny—silhouetted against the sky, capturing the viewer at first sight. Michael Yeargan‘s stark set of the California countryside establishes the sense of place and time.
It is the 1930s, and a band of men roams from place to place—itinerant workers just short of homeless—taking ranch jobs. It is a harsh world, no quarter given by owners, bosses, or the men themselves. But George and Lenny are different. They have a dream. They will save their earnings, buy their own spread, and keep chickens, goats, and especially rabbits. (Lenny has a penchant for stroking soft creatures.) They are a team.
The difficulty—and danger—lies with Lenny, an enormous man with prodigious strength and the mind of a child. George—his keeper, friend, protector—is forever bailing him out of trouble. Mice are killed as he pets them, girls run screaming as he strokes their soft skin. As the play opens, they are hired, meet up with their fellow workers and the owner’s son and his nubile wife. Unfortunately, the story’s end can be predicted long before the denouement, but not to be revealed in this space.
Steinbeck certainly captures the era, but it is hard to buy into his plot. Why does George stay with Lenny, rather than find a more appropriate companion? Why does the young wife spend time alone in the barn with Lenny? Both characters would have known better in those unforgiving times.
Yeargan’s set may be the star of the show, teamed with Robert Wierzel’s subtle lighting and John Gromada’s appropriate sound design and original music. In short, the design team is right on target. But Lamos also directs a fine cast which he turns into a flawless ensemble. Brian Hutchison (George) and Mark Mineart (Lennie) give heart-breaking portrayals (though Mineart briefly slips out of character midway, offering a near-normal Lennie). In supporting roles, Betsy Morgan is touching as the Wife, and Kene Holliday, Matthew Montelongo, and Edward Seamon all give solid performances.
The show was dedicated to the memory of Paul Newman and indeed was worthy of that honor—a serious, fine effort.
-- -Irene Backalenick
Oct. 13, 2008