Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Of Mice and Men
Park Square Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Waitress, A Christmas Carol, and Coney Island Christmas and Kit's review of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Patrick O'Brien, E.J. Subkoviak, Jane Froiland,
Payton Woodson and Michael Paul Levin

Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma
Park Square Theatre has staged Of Mice and Men on and off since 1998, most recently in 2013. In most cases they have offered limited public performances, placing greater focus on school matinee performances as part of Park Square's ambitious educational programming, serving more students than any other theater in Minnesota. For its ninth mounting of the John Steinbeck classic, Park Square has moved the play to the intimate Andy Boss Thrust Stage. The result is a powerful realization of one of American literature's most heartbreaking and iconic tales. It draws on a specific time in our history, yet speaks to many themes that underlie the discontent felt by many in society today. While the public performances are again limited, they are well worth seeking out.

Steinbeck wrote the novella with the notion that it be immediately adaptable as a dramatic play. It was both published and first produced on stage in 1937, a story immersed in the travails of migrant workers during the Great Depression. Steinbeck himself had been a teenage migrant farmworker in the 1910s, and his writing about these men and the conditions of their work has the ring of authenticity. The title comes from a line in Robert Burns' poem, "To a Mouse": "The best laid plans of mice and men/often go awry".

"Go awry," in this case, is an understatement. Of Mice and Men focuses on George and Lennie, who travel from job to job together. Lennie, a very large, hulking man, is mentally disabled. At best, his intellectual functioning is of a child of five. He is unable to predict the consequences of his actions nor the force of his tremendous strength. Lennie is fixated on soft things, carrying a dead mouse in his pocket in order to stroke its fur, but he is totally guileless without a deceitful or mean bone in his body. George is bright, though not formally educated. He could easily take care of himself without trouble, but along the way he has taken responsibility for Lennie, acting as Lennie's guardian and planning quick escapes when Lennie's impulses cause serious trouble. We meet them on their way to yet another ranch, hoping to hang on long enough to save up "a stake." George found a farm for sale at a good price and if he can just save up enough money, he and Lennie would be freed from working for low wages under grueling conditions, always prepared to make a getaway when things "go awry."

George manages to get them both hired. Their team leader, Slim, is understanding and tolerant of Lennie's nature. Another hand on the ranch, Crooks, has his lean-to outside the bunkhouse, because he is black. He and the other men have a barely civil relationship, but at days end Crooks is always alone, and Lennie doesn't understand this. Then there is Curley, son of the grim-faced ranch manager. Curley is a hot-head with hair-trigger control over his temper, and insanely distrustful of his new wife. Because she is the only woman on the ranch and is left alone while Curley is working, she seeks out the company of the other men—just to talk, she insists—but they all fear being caught with her by Curley, and call her jailbait, a bitch, a tart, and a tramp. All the men are able to elude her appeal for their attention, until Lennie. Staying on long enough to earn that stake begins to seem like a long shot.

Also in the bunk house are Candy, a broken down old-timer who fears he and his blind dog will be turned out from the ranch; Carlson, a surly fellow who seems to lack any feelings; and Whit, out to find a good time while staying clear of trouble. With great efficiency, Steinbeck creates the universe in which these men live, especially their loneliness, moving on their own from one job to the next. All of the other characters wonder how George and Lennie came to travel together, unheard of among these men. To Lennie, he and George are the lucky ones, because they need not be lonely: they have each other. How that luck unfolds, in the face of so many perils, is the play.

Annie Enneking, the region's premier fight choreographer, here makes her directing debut, bringing her sixth sense about the unseen line that separates feelings from violent acts, along with an ability to maintain narrative thrust without making the story feel rushed. She gives the story room to breathe, but without sitting down for a break, its momentum ever forward.

An excellent cast works with their director's instincts and makes the characters and the traps that ensnare them tangible. Michael Paul Levin and E. J. Subkoviak are George and Lennie, respectively, and both have played those parts before. Levin seems totally at home with George's scheming persona, and with the frustration brought on by Lennie, but also lets the audience see the deep well of affection he has for his demanding companion. As Lennie, E. J. Subkoviak has the requisite size, but moreover, the ability to make himself seem small in terms of his grasp of the world. In speech and gesture he conveys the unpracticed feel of a young child for whom every act is new. For Lennie, that is always so.

Jane Froiland is pitch perfect as Curley's wife, a character that Steinbeck intentionally left un-named, identified only as a man's "property." Froiland plays the part as a shallow and naïve woman, as written, yet one who is aware enough that, at least for her, marriage equals captivity, and she is determined to break out. Patrick O'Brien is completely persuasive as Candy, trying to stay relevant through constant banter and feigned high spirits, but he reveals the fear of displacement within the old man. Payton Woodson makes a strong impression as Crooks, who gives strong voice to the double jeopardy faced by a black man among the migrant workers, and Jason Rojas portrays Slim's firm but kind nature, the only man present with a chance of keeping the tinderbox from catching fire.

The production benefits from a versatile set designed by Mina Kinukawa to transform from George and Lennie's riverside campsite to the ranch bunkhouse, Crooks' lean-to, and a barn, along with atmospheric lighting designed by Michael P. Kittel and sound design that makes the sound of nature part of the scene, designed by Evan Middlesworth. Elin Anderson's costumes capture the hardscrabble lives of the workers, superior status of the boss, and a wardrobe for Curley's wife which she selects to look pretty, but which the men see as a tart's clothing.

Steinbeck ranks among America's great writers, and Of Mice and Men places high in his canon. Many themes are imbedded within its simple plot: the magnetism that draws two people to care for one another, when life says "every man for himself"; the price of loneliness when life is a string of jobs with no home and nothing more on the horizon; a woman's struggle to earn her own voice; the absurdity of barriers between men facing common foes merely based on skin color. Steinbeck lays out a deep dissection of America's open sores, circa 1937. That we are still struggling to heal those sores speaks both to challenges in our national make-up, and to Of Mice and Men's enduring power.

Of Mice and Men, through December 16, 2017, at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $60.00. Age 30 and under, $21.00 for standard seats; seniors (AGE 62+): $5.00 discount; military: $10.00 discount; rush tickets: $24.00 one hour before performance for unsold seats—cash only. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to

Playwright: John Steinbeck; Director: Annie Enneking; Scenic Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Elin Anderson; Lighting Design: Michael P. Kittel; Sound Design: Evan Middlesworth; Properties Design: Robert-Bruce Brake; Assistant Director: Michaela Johnson; Stage Manager: Jared Zeigler.

Cast: Avi Aharoni (Whit), Jerome Darling (Carlson), Jane Froiland (Curley's Wife), Vincent Hannam (Curley), Michael Paul Levin (George), Patrick O'Brien (Candy), Jason Rojas (Slim), Peter Simmons (The Boss), E.J. Subkoviak (Lennie), and Payton Woodson (Crooks).

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