I regret to report that Keegan Theatre’s production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is not up to the usual quality with which it produces American classics. It’s not a bad show. It features some good performances and the climactic scene, nearly two hours twenty minutes in, is genuinely moving. But this is a play which will not sing unless the audience sings along, and much of this production rings too false for us to buy into it.
A play about extraordinary events is most convincing when underplayed, and Of Mice and Men is about events which are nothing if not extraordinary. In depression-era California, George (Mark Rhea) and Lennie (Danny Gavigan) wander from place to place, doing farm work for hire. Lennie is a gigantic, powerful man with the mind of a child, possessed of a tremendous desire to please. He doesn’t know his own strength, though – as demonstrated by the high quantity of pet mice he has caressed to death – and his colossal misjudgments have gotten George and Lennie both into colossal pots of trouble. George, on the other hand, is a small, shrewd man who protects Lennie to the best of his ability, for reasons that are never clear to us.
George and Lennie, like many men during the Great Depression, harbor dreams of farming their own place, but they play out their lives as hired hands. They have found work at some miserable little farm during threshing season, and while there lay bare their hardscrabble lives against a mosaic composed of the lives of the other farmhands – Candy (Matt Boliek), who lost his hand in a farm accident and now sweeps up and handles other low-stress maintenance jobs; the boss’ son Curley (John Keena), an obnoxious bantam with a flirty, naïve, emptyheaded child of a wife (Lee Matthews); the perpetually angry Carlson (Kevin Adams), whose great ambition, eventually fulfilled, is to euthanize Candy’s old dog with a Lugar; the black farmhand Crooks (Paul Andrew Morton), who by dint of segregation has his own quarters; wise-guy Whit (Drew Kopas); and Slim (K.J. Thorarinsson), the only man whose decency and judgment are not open to question. George and Lennie discover that more than one farmhand shares their dreams of self-employment – Candy has over $300 which he is willing to contribute to the enterprise – but the principal story is that of endless waves of cruelty eroding fortresses of good intentions. There are fistfights, animal slaughter, murder – and the triumph of evil over good seems as natural as the eventual disintegration of the universe.
A story like that packs its own heat. A production serves such a story best when the actors make the events seem natural and inevitable. Why, then, does Lennie open this production by hurling himself into a stream and gulping the water so desperately that it looks as though he has just crossed the Mojave? Why is George screaming at him two minutes into the play, loudly bemoaning the opportunities he has lost by serving as Lennie’s caretaker? Why is Carlson so intent on shooting Candy’s dog that it looks, for a moment, as though he’s going to shoot Candy himself? In short, why isn’t this story being allowed to tell itself? Of course, Lennie is thirsty, and has a childlike lack of concern over whether the stream is safe or not; George is frustrated and at such moments imagines that he would be better off without Lennie; Carlson is a mean man who takes pleasure in the thought of killing the dog, who smells bad. But the dialogue is powerful enough to make all of the points pellucid, and the production does not need to push the issues.
Gavigan is a good actor, but he has incorporated too many tells into his character. Lennie is severely retarded and must seem so, but at the same time he must be sufficiently together that George can believe that if he doesn’t speak no one will recognize his condition. Gavigan’s Lennie walks around with his mouth open; tongue lolling out; he plucks nervously at his overalls near the crotch; he stares into space. All these gestures might be appropriate in portraying a man who has a child’s unselfconsciousness about his body, but Lennie’s tragedy is that he can almost, but not quite, pass for normal in a society desperate for cheap labor. The man Gavigan puts on the stage would not come near to passing that test.
I don’t mean to suggest that the entire production proceeds in a fever pitch. After the opening scene, Rhea settles into his character, and his George is solid and convincing. He allows us to see his tender feelings toward Lennie, and his embarrassment over those feelings, and his genuine confusion. There is some good work done by the supporting cast, including by Thorarinsson, who shows the quiet authority Slim must have, and Keena as Curley, who is pretty restrained in a role which is frequently done over the top. Boliek, who is transitioning from community theater, does a good job with Candy. However, he is a young man, and the character as Steinbeck wrote him is near the end of his useful life on the farm. On the other hand, Curley’s wife is meant to be both flirtatious and innocent, but Matthews shortchanges her on both scores. In this production, she seems like a hard woman, and when she fantasizes about her pending career in the movies to an uncomprehending Lennie, she seems merely foolhardy, rather than sad.
Keegan’s usually-reliable technical staff is surprisingly weak. The gunshot sounds (David Crandall does the sound design) appear to have been recorded from a 1940s movie or, worse, a 1970s video game. The dress which Curley’s wife wears (Shadia Hafiz was the costume designer) seem to antedate the play’s 1937 setting by several years. It appears that extra padding was added to Gavigan’s costume in order to show Lennie’s hypermusculature; Gavigan seems a little stiff and awkward as a consequence. Director Kerry Waters Lucas, though, cleverly casts men of modest height in the roles around Lennie, so that Gavigan – a tall man, but no giant – looks bigger.
Of Mice and Men is a powerful play, and so a merely adequate production – which this is – still gives satisfaction. But merely adequate is so far beneath the expectations which Keegan has generated over the years that in this case, it’s not sufficient.
Of Mice and Men
Adapted by John Steinbeck from his novella of the same name
Directed by Kerry Waters Lucas
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
OF MICE AND MEN