TheatreWorks evinces an elegant touch when it comes to the classics. It may have been 75 year since John Steinbeck’s remarkable novel Of Mice and Men, but the narrative is as powerful as ever. In the hands of a theater company deep in talent and experience, we are treated to a profound gift, and another example of why I believe theater to still be so essential, relevant.
The story of migrant workers in Northern California, according a river from one job to the next reminds us that the depression back then was vastly different than any “depression” or economic downturn we’ve experienced in recent years. We still have iPads, lattes, Facebook friends. These guys, shacked up in a ranch bunkhouse, buck barley for 11 hours at a time. Luxuries to them are sharing a story or two in between shifts, and playing cards.
We have iPads, lattes, Facebook friends. These guys @TheatreWorksSV buck barley in twelve hour shifts. http://t.co/HL59UsBN
— Clinton Stark (@clintonstark) April 9, 2012
An unlikely friendship between George (Jos Viramontes in a SFBATCC award-worthy performance), who has the gift of the gab, and Lennie (AJ Meijer, equally impressive), a not-so-bright giant who likes to pet small animals, anchor the story. Their plight gives us a first-hand look at what it means to literally search for that next dollar. They eat out of cans, wash themselves in a river, and share their dreams. Back then, working for the man was also something to be avoided. If they could save up $400 perhaps they’d have enough to buy their own land, stocked with chickens and (furry) rabbits.
Like all dreams, the present keeps getting in the way; as does Lennie’s penchant for wanting to touch things, even though he’s “done no wrong.” George, fortunately, treats him like a brother, often covering his tracks, and always running from the past.
A few elements of TheatreWorks’ production standout.
First, the acting. It’s supreme. Uniformly supreme.
This is a strong cast, maybe one of the strongest I’ve seen on this stage in the past few years. Charles Branklyn as Crooks, the outcast “colored man” living alone next to a pile of manor, makes the most of his time on stage with a gravitas performance that tugs our hearts without resorting to cliche or sentimentality. He hobbles around the stage bemoaning his lot with sharp wit, providing a counterbalance to the well-choreographed fisticuffs we see earlier in the bunkhouse.
Second, this production Of Mice and Men works because the chemistry between the two leads is so convincing.
We need to believe that George and Lennie are inseparable soul mates. Without each other, they could not survive. In them we see our own dreams, our own foibles. When that final scene arrives — and with that haunting foreshadowing we absolutely know what’s coming — we are so vested in these guys that the emotional impact is gargantuan.