“Of Mice and Men” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

Every year has its momentous events, and 1937 had more than a few. The Golden Gate Bridge was completed, the Hindenburg exploded, and Amelia Earhart disappeared. It was the depth of the Depression, and unemployment hovered above 14%. The Life of Emile Zola won the Oscar for Best Picture, but Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Walt Disney’s first feature-length animated film – was Number 1 at the box office.

And John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men was published to critical acclaim, and his stage adaptation opened on Broadway in November.

The book has become a staple of high-school reading lists, despite controversies over its “vulgar” language, racial epithets, and perceived anti-business slant. The play has been a magnet for actors over the years, as the major roles are about as juicy as one can get. And even though the work is 80 years old, its themes and characters resonate today almost as strongly as they must have in the dark days of the 1930s. It’s no wonder NoHo’s Theatre Unleashed decided to include it in its current season.

Gregory Crafts (L) and Spencer Cantrell. Photo: Lonni Silverman

For those whose reading list hasn’t included Of Mice and Men: George (Spencer Cantrell) and Lennie (Gregory Crafts) are migrant workers in California, moving from job to job, farm to farm. Lennie is a hulk of a man, huge and mentally disabled, while George, though uneducated, is quick and smart and, despite impatience and frustration with Lennie, takes care of both of them. Lennie loves soft things such as small animals, and might be thought of as a “gentle giant” except that he doesn’t know his own strength and inevitably winds up killing the furry creatures. The pair has fled their previous job site because Lennie had touched a young woman’s soft dress and wouldn’t let go, which led to his being accused of rape. George cautions Lennie to keep his mouth shut and stay out of trouble as they approach another farm to take on new jobs.

(L-R) Jim Martyka, Ross Shaw, David Caprita, Matthew Clay, Shane Howard. Photo: Lonni Silverman

After a less-than-warm welcome from the Boss (Jim Blanchette), the newcomers get to work in the fields by day, and retire to the bunkhouse at night, where their compatriots include Candy (David Caprita), an older man with only one hand; Slim (Jim Martyka), a respected overseer; Carlson (Matthew Clay), a quick-tempered guy with a gun; and Whit (Ross Shaw), a ranch hand. There’s also Crooks (Twon Pope), who occasionally comes into the bunkhouse, but isn’t allowed to stay there, as he’s black and is consequently exiled to the barn to sleep with the horses.

(L-R) Ross Shaw, Jim Martyka, Matthew Clay, Lee Pollero. Photo: Lonni Silverman

Rushing in and out of the bunkhouse – usually in a state of agitation – is the Boss’s pugnacious son Curley (Lee Pollero), who seems to be constantly looking for his flirtatious and somewhat slutty Wife (Amanda Rae Troisi).

Amanda Mae Troisi. Photo: Lonni Silverman

The farm isn’t a happy place, and the characters are downtrodden and desperate. George harbors a dream of his own little place, with chickens and a pig, which he’d share with Lennie; his constant retelling of “the story” of this little piece of heaven invariably brings a smile to Lennie’s face. When Candy – worried about his future as he ages with only one hand – offers to bankroll more than half the money George needs to realize his dream if he can live with him and Lennie, hope tentatively gains a foothold. Even the cynical Crooks gets swept up by the possibility, and asks permission to live with the trio, offering to hoe the garden for them.

But hope dies quickly as Lennie does another “bad thing” and must flee for his life. When George catches up with him at a prearranged meeting place where Lennie was to go if he got into trouble, hope isn’t the only thing to die as George reaches a traumatic decision.

(L-R) Gregory Crafts, David Caprita, Twon Pope. Photo: Lonni Silverman

The cast is uniformly strong, with the supporting players creating individual characters which mesh to form a believable ensemble. If one can be singled out, it would be Mr. Caprita, whose Candy, like many people in our country today, is looking for somewhere to be safe, yet is determined to maintain his integrity even through his fear.

As George, Mr. Cantrell is energetic and fast-talking, yet still projects the bone-weariness and dejection of a man who can imagine a future for himself yet knows, deep down, he will never achieve it.

Spencer Cantrell. Photo: Lonni Silverman

And as Lennie – a difficult role, as it’s easy to play it as cliché or caricature – Mr. Crafts expertly conveys the man’s innate dignity and goodness, his simple delight in dreams of having rabbits to pet, and, ultimately, his sorrow and recognition that his “bad things” have bollixed everything up.

Ann Hurd’s scenic design, Michelle Stann’s lighting design, and Jessica J’aime’s costume design all make valuable contributions to the production.

Aaron Lyons has directed fluidly, keeping the pace crisp, yet giving those moments which require time all they need; it’s a smart production. Perhaps Mr. Lyons’s smartest move was to hire Shane Howard to compose and perform the music. This is not “incidental music” as we normally think of it in a play: Mr. Howard is onstage the whole time, playing throughout the scenes – sometimes assertively, more often so softly it’s almost subliminal. But the music gives the scenes a baseline, a foundation, which makes them all the more effective. The few times the music stops – waiting for a gunshot, when a racial epithet is spat out, when a character dies – the silence is, to coin a phrase, deafening.

Of Mice and Men is about dreams, and how difficult – and often impossible – they are to fulfill. In their striving for peace and happiness, for companionship if not love, and for at least a bit of security, these characters are timeless.

Of Mice and Men
Written by John Steinbeck
Directed by Aaron Lyons

Through May 13

Theatre Unleashed
The Belfry Stage
11031 Camarillo Street
North Hollywood, CA 91602
Tickets: 818-849-4039 or www.theatreunleashed.org


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