Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Steinbeck adapted his own novel for the stage within months of its publication in 1937 and it is a superb piece of drama. His ability to get to the core of the tight bond of friendship shared between his two lead characters is extraordinary. More of a character study than a heavy, plot-driven tale, the story follows migrant workers George and Lennie, who move from job to job throughout California. The two often talk of their dream of owning their own piece of land where they can be free and where the mentally disabled Lennie can tend to the rabbits. It is this talk that gets them through the challenges of their heavy physical workload and to see past the boring drawbacks of their nomadic lives. However, while he is a kind-hearted "gentle giant," the large, hulking Lennie doesn't quite know his own strength and, while George tries constantly to protect him and calm his fears, trouble is brewing and their fight for survival tests the true bonds of their deep friendship.
As George and Lennie, Jonathan Wainwright and Scott Greer embody their roles with realism and nuance. The natural bond between the characters is explicit and deeply felt. Wainwright's frustration and agitation when Lennie does something wrong perfectly echoes an overprotective brother who is always looking out for his best friend. Greer is simply heartbreaking as Lennie. George says that Lennie is "just like a kid, except he's strong" and Greer perfectly exhibits the playful and childlike mannerisms along with the strength of this lovable but physically imposing man. The way Greer displays Lennie's inability to comprehend and his struggle against things he doesn't understand is extremely moving.
The supporting cast is effective in creating realistic and identifiable characters. As Candy, the older ranch hand who lost his hand in an accident and fears for his ability to get future work, James Pickering brings a continual voice of hope within the loneliness. As the wife of the jealous ranch hand Curly, Kelley Faulkner has a nice moment in her scene with Lennie in which both are speaking of their dreams; and Chike Johnson, as the only black worker on the ranch, has a deeply moving scene with Lennie as well.
Director Mark Clements focuses on the dreams that the characters have, not letting the loneliness and sadness of these men overpower the strong bond of friendship that's at the core of the story. Todd Edward Ivins' set design is exquisite, with large, wooden, movable flats and realistic props and set dressings that create the bunkhouse and barn of the ranch setting. The costume designs by Rachel Laritz are period appropriate, with earth tones that tie in to both the characters and their working on the land. I especially like the spurs the characters wear, which adds to the realism of the setting. Jesse Klug's lighting design includes appropriate bright moments and shadows, for the daytime and nighttime moments respectively, as well as some rich silhouettes. Joe Cerqua's sound design features some truly eerie effects, especially in a fight scene which is realistically staged by fight director Jamie Cheatham.
While it is ultimately a sad story, ATC's production of Of Mice and Men features a stellar cast, who deliver sensitive and emotionally moving performances, and solid direction that combine to create an exceptionally rewarding journey. Steinbeck's tale focuses on his characters' dashed dreams in the Great Depressionsomething that still resonates today, with so many people still doing what they can to achieve their own version of the American Dream.
Of Mice and Men at Arizona Theatre Company runs through April 17th, 2016, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling (602) 256 6995.
Mark Clements: Director
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.