review: of mice and men

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Of Mice and Men

By John Steinbeck
Directed by Michael Rice
At Steep Theatre Company
3902 North Sheridan
Chicago, IL
Running time 2 hours with 1 intermission

Through March 28, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 8, 2006

Of Mice and Men brings literature to gentle life

The small-scale story of people living on the edge of society, first staged in the 1937-38 Broadway season by George Kaufman, is given current Chicago life on the intimate Steep Theatre stage.  The five-year old storefront has created an engaging, measured translation of Steinbeck’s Depression era drama.

Director Michael Rice and his production and research team have efficiently created several rural settings in one room, on the way to, way from, and several locations on a working ranch in rural California.  Set pieces are added and subtracted, bunks and other furniture are moved on and off, and our attention remains directly on the varied but moving and focused performances provided in this current production.

Lenny (Brendan Melanson) and George (Anderson Lawfer) rush onto the stage, breathless, thirsty, trudging toward their next ranch job.  There is talk of some kind of trouble in the past small town but the wash of character development takes us past that question, until later in the play.   Quickly and simply we are introduced to the fractious but loving relationship between simple-minded Lenny and his friend and protector George.  The remaining cast members are introduced gradually in the next several scenes once Lenny and George arrive at the ranch: Candy the older maimed farm hand (Peter Esposito), Slim the articulate mule skinner (Alex Gillmore), agitated boss Curley (Andrew Perez) and his misplaced daydreaming wife (Caroline Neff), additional farm hands Whit (Bill Miller) and Carlson (James Allen) and the realistically bitter single black character Crooks (J. J. McCormick).

All the characters dream of small self-sufficient lives in which they can call their own shots and “live off the fat of the land”.  No one of the characters achieves those dreams during our time with them and a few have their journeys tragically derailed.

Pace and timing vary in the performances in this production.  Several performances deserve special mention for their nuance and power: Brendan Melanson’s sweet and powerful and tragic Lenny; Peter Esposito’s resigned and temporarily hopeful Candy (note in particular his reaction to the arguments presented by the other farm hands to shoot Candy’s old dog and companion .. the symbolism of the expendability of human life on the edges of society is simple and the reality of this is simply and powerfully played); Gillmore’s even toned and understanding Slim, and Caroline Neff in her touching final scene with consistently powerful Melanson as Lenny.

In this story, love is wherever you find it, dreams can motivate even the most intractable cynic, and tough decisions need to be made.  Steinbeck’s characters engage in heroic yet human scale struggles against the limits imposed by life’s rules.  And yet somehow, there is some hope at the play’s end.

Recommended

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 8, 2006)

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