Of Mice and Men
By John Steinbeck
Directed by Alan Wade
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
All hail Christopher Lane, who has put forth the 2007-2008 season’s first towering performance as Lenny, the profoundly retarded, childlike giant who is the focus of Olney’s Of Mice and Men. Lenny is an iconic role, and when Lane says the remembered lines – “tell me about the rabbits, George” – he must do so in a way which makes himself convincing as a human being, rather than an icon. Lane passes this test with ease. His Lenny is slack-jawed, smooth-skinned; his unmodulated voice echoing eerily across the California plains; prone to anger and panic and tears. From the moment Lenny enters the stage and gulps from invisible still waters, we understand that this is a creature who has been designed by God for tragedy, and that every moment of the play will be devoted to preventing the inevitable conflagration, unsuccessfully.
Does Lane bring his A game to this production? Pay attention to a portion of the play you are inclined to treat casually: the curtain call. Lane comes out in character as Lenny, all blubber-faced, blank-eyed and befuddled. But after he acknowledges the applause, and slaps Richard Pilcher, who plays George, on the back, intelligence flickers into his eyes, and, astonishingly, the shape of his face becomes articulated. Lane, a college professor who has played the ultrasophisticated Dr. Treves in The Elephant Man and Neil Workman in In the Mood, journeys a thousand miles and perhaps seventy IQ points – and becomes himself. That, brothers and sisters, is acting.
Would that I could be as enthusiastic about the entire production. The problem is not that it’s poorly produced and performed. On the contrary, the general quality of the acting is high, and the production values, while not comparable to Olney’s best, are certainly adequate. Rather, there is a terrible ambiguity which hangs over Olney’s Of Mice and Men, one which makes the production at once more provocative and less dramatically satisfying. At the play’s center, of course, is the relationship between Lenny and his sharp-witted protector, George. The question, raised and not fully resolved, is this: who is Lenny to George? What is it that makes George push on with Lenny? Or, to state the case is cruder, more direct terms – when George takes that dreadful final act, does he feel remorse – or relief?
I don’t know, but after seeing Olney’s staging of this classic play I’m afraid the latter answer may be the correct one. As played by Pilcher, Olney’s George seems always to be selling something, most frequently to himself. And the most important thing he tries to sell is the strength and legitimacy of his relationship with his mentally impaired friend. But throughout this furious production, he shows not a moment of tenderness towards his companion, and in the play’s final moments, when he realizes at last that Lenny has practically memorized his teachings, as a dog might memorize his master’s commands, it does not seem to mean a damn.
The story behind Of Mice and Men (the title is from the lines of the Robert Burns’ poem “the plans of mice and men/Aft glang aglay”) is well known. Lenny, an immensely powerful retarded man who appears to have no fine control over his strength, travels as a migrant farmworker with George, a small, sharp-witted man. Lenny’s unusual combination of strengths and weaknesses have gotten him in trouble in more than one town. Most recently, they were run out because of Lenny’s compulsion to grasp the dress of a comely young woman. Her screams merely increased Lenny’s agitation and the matter quickly devolved to accusations of rape, posses and advanced hiding techniques. We are in the midst of the worst depression in the nation’s history, and our dreams, like the topsoil of the Southern Plain States which fed us for so many years, have turned to dust.
George and Lenny are on another farm now, in another town, working with another group of sad and hungry men: garrulous, one-handed Candy (John Dow), the domineering, mean-spirited Carlson (Robert Leembruggen), the gossipy Whit (R. Scott Williams), Crooks (Keith N. Johnson), a hunchbacked black man, the charismatic mule-skinner Slim (Jeff Allin), who radiates leadership, and Curley (Carlos Candelario), a dark-souled creature, the boss’ son. Curley has recently married, and his wife (Margo Seibert) is forward with men. This, we know, will come to a bad end.
The dreams of the farmhands are reduced to this: they will earn $50 at the end of the month, which they will spend on a weekend of pleasure at a whorehouse and bar. But George and Lenny have a more complicated dream: to buy a house on ten acres of land, and to there raise chickens and rabbits, and grow alfalfa. Toward this goal, they have set aside ten dollars.
Candy, who has a surprisingly large amount of money to his name, unexpectedly puts this dream within reach. But Lenny, clumsy and dull, cannot help but fouling every plan, and in the end he jeopardizes not only the plan but his life. George, who has devoted much of his life to protecting Lenny, knows that he has done so at the expense of his own dreams. But he also comes to learn that without Lenny, those dreams are flat.
The play’s unanswered question, of course, is why George is so invested in protecting his dim-witted friend. In director Alan Wade’s interpretation, the possibility of a homosexual relationship between the two is approached straightforwardly, but not in any overwhelming fashion. When George denies the implication, the denial is accepted. The alternate explanation – that George knows that it is a duty of honor for the strong to protect the weak – was better understood in Steinbeck’s time than our own, and Wade seems not to give it any quarter. But what is the answer, then? Wade, and Pilcher’s George, seem to give none, and it is possible that George does not know. This resolution is plausible, but not satisfying, and the audience leaves not knowing much more than they knew when they came in.
Olney has put together a powerhouse supporting cast, and in general they do the script justice. Dow, Leembruggen and especially Johnson are extraordinarily potent. This is probably the best work I have ever seen Dow do. His Candy is weak and powerful, a man so in tune with his own desperation he can abandon the sadness he feels upon the death of his dog to embrace the possibility of hope which George and Lenny’s plans give him. Leembruggen, a Keegan mainstay, radiates selfishness and venality under a hail-fellow-well-met persona. And Johnson, wheezing, crippled and bitter, manages to convey a sense of amazed irony at the white men who seek a black man’s blessing for their crazed plans. Only Williams, so thoroughly convincing in Washington Stage Guild’s Opus, seems outside his range here.
The two Equity candidates, Candelario and Seibert, more than hold their own with this fine cast. Candelario creates an extraordinarily specific Curley, aggressive, self-justified and angry; when he falls victim to a great wrong, he merely feels sorry for himself, and he has worked effectively to make that posture a convincing one. Seibert, who has chosen to give her character an Okie dialect, makes herself more complex than the usual floozy who inhabits the role. Curley’s wife, it is clear, is less horny than lonely, and she reaches out for human contact, not sex.
Indeed, Of Mice and Men is thick with loneliness, from Crooks’ sour racial isolation to the sexual isolation of Curley’s wife, to Lenny’s foggy despair. Had Wade and Pilcher made George a little more human, and a little more bereft, we might have felt this loneliness too. As it stands, though, Of Mice and Men is more a celebration of craft than a fully realized piece of art.
(Running time: 2:40 with 1 intermission) Of Mice and Men continues Wednesdays through Sundays until October 28. Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 7.30. Matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays at Sundays at 2, except for October 10, 24 and 27. No show October 11,19, 21 and 28. Tickets are $25-$46. Call 301.924.3400 or visit http://www.olneytheatre.org/.