Prince William Little Theatre Of Mice and MenBy Bob Ashby • Oct 16th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Prince William Little Theatre
Gregory Family Theatre, Manassas, VA
Through October 21st
2:25 with one intermission
$15/$12 Senior; Student; Military/$8 Children
Reviewed October 13th, 2012
In community theater, directors often lack the luxury of being able to cast ideal physical types in key roles. In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, it is crucial that the central character, Lennie, be a big, powerful, physically imposing and intimidating man. The script repeatedly refers to him as such, and Lennie’s inability to appreciate his own physical strength leads him toward his final disaster. Playing the role in Prince William Little Theater’s current production, Leland Shook is no bigger than his friend George or even his antagonist Curley, requiring of the audience a greater-than-desirable suspension of disbelief.
This is no knock on Shook’s performance. Smiling, sweet, forgetful, uncomprehending, quick to anger, Shook explores all of Lennie’s emotional dimensions, including his fatal love of petting soft things and his childlike desire to have George tell and retell the dream they share of future happiness on a small farm. His verbal hesitations and stammers add to the portrait of someone frustrated by his inability to make himself understood.
Matt Jordan has the difficult task of knitting together George’s need for Lennie’s companionship, his protectiveness of Lenny, and his frequent anger at Lennie and desire to be free from the responsibility of caring for him. The script allows him few opportunities to integrate these feelings: it’s one thing or another, forcing the actor to switch back and forth between moods.
So why does George stick with Lenny? Jordan’s performance makes clear that, like virtually all the characters in the play, George is consumed with loneliness; Lennie is George’s best insurance against a totally solitary life. Lennie also gives George the opportunity to articulate his dreams for a better life. George’s dream comes fully alive only as he recites it to Lennie. While there is no apparent homoerotic subtext to their relationship, either as written or performed, George and Lennie’s dream in many ways parallels that of a traditional marriage: a cute little country home, where George is the head of household and Lennie tends the garden and cares for the rabbits.
Ultimately, the deepest tragedy of the play belongs to George. Having killed Lennie, even though out of kindness, George has also knowingly killed his only dream. What’s left except to go out for a drink?
George and Lennie live in a bleak world of Depression-era migrant farm work, in which not only loneliness but also mean-spiritedness dominate the characters’ lives. George treats Lennie meanly at times. Carlson (Lanny Henzell) insists on shooting an old dog who is the only companion of Candy (Dell Pendergrast). When the fatal shot is heard from offstage, Pendergrast’s Candy, already curled up in depressed defeat, twitches as though he himself had been shot. No one consoles him.
Curley (Andrew Tippie), a nasty peckerwood type, is constantly spoiling for a fight, particularly interested in goading Lennie to violence. Curley’s wife (Erin Cooper) torments her husband with constant flirtations with the other men. Denied any chance to chase her dream of making it in Hollywood, however unrealistic, she too is driven by loneliness, creating havoc for herself and others. As Cooper plays her, she is reminiscent of Mayella Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Steinbeck’s treatment of the wife — who is not given a character name — is one of the most disturbing aspects of the play. All the other men reject her, in the harshest terms, as a slut and a troublemaker, whom they want to go away. One of the evening’s most striking images occurs when, after Lennie accidentally kills her, the other men enter, see her body, and express not the slightest sorrow over her death. Even her husband’s reaction is not to grieve her loss, but is simply to vow to kill Lennie. Lennie’s Aunt Clara, who has died some years before, is the only woman spoken of kindly in the script, in which the characters, and perhaps Steinbeck himself, fully embrace the good woman/whore dichotomy.
As Crooks, the black stablehand, Sharif Folks suffers the meanness of racist exclusion practiced by the other men. While he starkly expresses his own loneliness, Crooks is no more welcoming to others for the experience. For someone who is supposed to he hampered by a bad back, Folks is a bit too physically energetic at times. The most fully realized and convincing performance of the night belongs to Larry Keeling as Slim, a mule driver whose depth of understanding and decency give him a quiet authority far beyond that of the other characters. Keeling’s low-key, thoroughly grounded characterization could be used as a clinic for how naturalistic acting is supposed to work.
As befits the simple surroundings of the farm, the show’s set consists of a series of posts and beams framing a few beds, tables etc. There are occasional projections of the moon or clouds on an upstage cyc. The sound design consists mostly of repeated recordings of dogs howling and other night sounds between scenes and, very oddly, classical music before the show and during intermission. The world of Of Mice and Men seems about as far away from that of chamber music as one can imagine. When George shoots Lennie at the end if the play, the fatal gunshot was done through a recording, rather than using the gun in George’s hand, probably fortunately for Shook’s eardrums.
Even in more recent plays and musicals, a common theme has been the difficulty, or perhaps impossibility, of achieving “The American Dream.” “The American Dream” song in Miss Saigon, “Another National Anthem” and Sam Byck’s monologues in Assassins, and, in a quite different direction, Glengarry Glen Ross all concern the persistence of that dream and the sometimes violent frustration resulting from failure to achieve it. In 1937, when Steinbeck wrote the Of Mice and Men, the scale of that dream available to the likes of George and Lennie had been reduced to something very limited. Steinbeck’s success, and that of this production, is to make understandable the emotional impact of the loss of even that tiny dream.
Of Mice and Men is based on the novel written by Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck. Set in Northern California during the Great Depression, the book was published in 1937. The play was first presented by Sam H. Harris at the Music Box Theatre in New York on November 23, 1937. It is based on Steinbeck’s own experiences as a bindlestiff, ie, a hobo, especially one who carries a bedroll, in the 1920’s. The title is taken from Robert Burns’ poem “To A Mouse,” which read: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley.” (The best laid schemes of mice and men/Often go awry.) Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck’s first attempt at writing in the form of novel-play, termed a “play-novelette” by one critic. It is intended to be both a novella and a script for a play. He wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel.
Surviving during the Great Depression was tough. Men were always looking for work just to survive. Finding companionship was a special gift that not everyone was lucky enough to find. During the Great Depression in Soledad, CA, two drifters, George and his friend Lennie, with dreams of living off the “fat of the land,” have just arrived at a ranch to work for enough money to buy their own place. There they meet many different types of people, some kind, some hurtful, and some downright dangerous. This classic play takes through a world filled with hope, loneliness and the dream of achieving something better in life. The words in this play still resonate today, so many years after they were written, showing us how things were and how they still are for so many…making me very appreciative of the friends in my life and all those I meet during my journey.
In working on this production, we had many wonderful discussions which led all of the actors to add layers to their characters which went deep into their souls. I must admit, we also had some times when we laughed at some joke or amusing thought shard with each other that helped to break the tension of a particularly difficult scene that we’d been working on for awhile. It was both the in-depth discussions and laughter that drew everyone close together. Cast, crew and staff all worked very hard and I cannot thank them enough for all the time they put in to bring the lines of this script to life for all of you.
“There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores, a path beaten hard by boys coming down from the ranches to swim in the deep pool, and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening to jungle-up near water.”
Photos provided by Prince William Little Theatre
- George: Matt Jordan
- Lennie: Leland Shook
- Candy: Dell Pendergrast
- The Boss: Don Wilson
- Curley: Andrew Tippie
- Curley’s Wife: Erin Cooper
- Slim: Larry Keeling
- Carlson: Lanny Henzell
- White: Rodrigo Pool
- Crooks: Sharif Folks
- Director: Zina Bleck
- Producer: Zina Bleck
- Assistant Director: Becky Farrris
- Stage Manager: Denise Mattingly
- Set Design: Jarrett Baker
- Lighting Design: Stacy King
- Set Construction & Painting: Jarrett Baker
- Set Dressing: Zina Bleck, Katherine Blondin, Becky Farris & Rodrigo Pool
- Fight Choreography: Leland Shook
- Costume Design: Susy Moorstein
- Hair and Make-up: The Cast
- Special Effect Make-Up (Candy’s arm): Lenny Henzell
- Properties: Zina Bleck, Katherine Blondin, Becky Farris & Rodrigo Pool
Disclaimer: Prince William Little Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8748.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.