Rep's "Of Mice and Men" tells a mesmerizing tale of relentless heartbreak
There have been any number of debates over the question of whether "Of Mice and Men," the John Steinbeck play based on his almost 80-year-old novella, is something that an audience in today's world can relate to.
Today, we live in a world of speed, of immediate satisfaction, of the dreams of our parents, our children, our lovers. Today, we have little use for our history, and we want to be unburdened by the past, so we may grapple with our present and lust after our futures.
Today, "Of Mice and Men" is an historical play. There are ample arguments that a story about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in California doesn't really matter much anymore.
But Mark Clements production running at the Milwaukee Rep is not a play about history. It is a play about heartbreak, and who among us has not witnessed heartbreak, either our own or a loved one.
Many people have described both the book and the play as simple affairs. The book is short. The play is full of characters who have simple dreams and simple emotions. But Clements and his wonderful cast have found layers of emotion and complexities we may not have seen before.
The character of Lennie (Scott Greer) is one of the most famous in all American literature. Lennie and his partner, George (Jonathan Wainwright), are at the center of this story. They have a friendship based on mutual need and mutual satisfactions.
Lennie is a large man with a small mind. Today, we may say that he is somewhere on the Autism spectrum. Most often, we see a Lennie as a two-dimensional panda bear. He is gentle and unfocused and befuddled and kind and loving and then he is angry and tempestuous and, yes, murderous.
This Lennie is so, so much more. He doesn't just like soft little things like mice and rabbits. He doesn't just have a dream of living on a small patch of land with George. He is also a sexual man, even though his sexuality frightens himself. He is in touch with a reality, his own reality, but a reality nonetheless. He is funny, and he likes being funny. He knows that his constant demand that George tell him again and again about the plan to have their own little farm drives George nuts, and Lennie thinks that's funny.
Greer, who played Lennie the first time Clements mounted this play in Philadelphia nine years ago, is a sight to behold. Many directors would have demanded more versatility from the actor. More movement, different expressions. But Greer taps into the normal kind behavior for individuals tasked with a mild kind of autism. Repetitive expression is a hallmark of any of the Lennies in this world.
Wainwright is a veteran Milwaukee actor who has stepped into high cotton with this role. And nobody in Milwaukee does "tightly coiled" as well as Wainwright. There is not a moment in this play that you don't expect him to suddenly explode.
Before they get to the ranch, George and Lennie camp under the stars next to a water hole. They each have a can of beans to eat for dinner. Their dialogue moves back and forth, and we know this same conversation has been had hundreds of times before.
Before they take to their sleeping rolls for the night, George bends down and tenderly wipes a bit of bean sauce from Lennie's cheek. It is such a gentle moment, but I found my breath being held, wondering if this was going to turn from friendly to frightening. It was a moment.
Wainwright and Greer are surrounded by a cast of powerful and experienced actors, led by James Pickering, who turns in another towering performance as one of the ranch hands, Candy, aged, sad, hopeful and resigned.
The heartbreak in this play drapes itself over each character, including the one female, Kelly Faulkner's wife, who wants to be in "pitchers" and get out from under her husband (Bernard Balbot) who can't measure up to what she wants in a man.
Chike Johnson plays Crooks, the blacksmith who is forced to live in a room all alone because he's a black man. Early in the second act, when all the men have gone to town, Lennie, seeing the light, steps into Crooks room. It is given to Johnson to give the speech about the times in which they all live.
"I seen hundreds of men come by on the road and on the ranches, bindles on their back and that same damn thing in their head. Hundreds of 'em. They come and they quit and they go on. And every damn one of 'em is got a little piece of land in his head. And never a goddamn one of 'em gets it. Jus' like heaven. Everybody wants a little piece of land. Nobody never gets to heaven. and nobody gets to land."
This production takes place in a spectacular setting by Todd Edward Ivins, who – along with passionate lighting by Jesse Klug – takes us from a dusty piece of dirt with a horizon in the distance to a bunkyard and a barn.
About the only difficulty I had with this production was that I would have liked some time to catch my breath. It was such a high level of tension that I had hoped that some places might ratchet things down.
This play is less about striving for the American Dream and more about the ways we all fool ourselves. Nobody in this play truly believes they will have any dream come true, but if they keep saying it over and over, they can keep heartbreak at bay for yet another day.
"Of Mice and Men" runs through Feb. 21 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.
Production Credits: Director, Mark Clements; Scenic Designer, Todd Edward Ivins; Lighting Designer, Jesse Klug; Costume Designer, Rachel Laritz; Original Music and Sound Designer, Joe Cerqua; Fight Choreographer, Jamie Cheatham; Associate Director, Leda Hoffmann; Casting Director, JC Clementz; Stage Manager, Richelle Harrington Calin.
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