California during the Great Depression. Ranch hands, George Milton (Brian Hutchinson) and Lennie Small (Mark Mineart), have known one another since childhood. George is uneducated, but pragmatic and savvy; Lennie a big man with the mind of a child. George has watched over/protected his companion for years. We never learn why. “I could live so easily if I didn’t have you on my tail…It ain’t the bad people that raises hell, it’s the dumb ones,” he says with resignation. Promises of saving enough money to buy a working farm where Lennie can raise rabbits (he loves small furry animals) is the illusory light at the end of an endless tunnel.
We meet the two men fleeing their last job. In all innocence, Lennie touched the skirt of a young woman who grew frightened and agitated causing him to hold on tighter rather than let go. When George managed to pry the simpleton away, his “victim” cried rape. It’s clearly not the first time the big man’s behavior has forced them to move on.
Sleeping outside the night before they reach a new job, George finds Lennie is carrying a dead mouse he likes to stroke. George tosses the filthy creature away tendering the possibility of a puppy, perhaps too big to inadvertently harm. That’s their relationship in a nutshell. Lennie volunteers to go live in a cave.
Mark Mineart’s Lennie is humble, wary, confused, sweet, hopeful. The actor enhances characterization with clumsy physicality including attempted gentleness to small creatures. Pausing as he struggles to remember or comprehend works well. Brian Hutchinson’s George is less credible. Performance is one-note even in the face of challenging or painful circumstances. Neither stoic nor numb are completely without expression.
Edward Seamon, Mark Mineart, Brian Hutchinson
The next ranch is a minefield. Lennie almost loses the pair employment by showing himself as slow during the interview. The boss’s son Curley has a Napoleon complex goading Lennie from their first meeting, a confrontation in the making. Curley’s wife (Betsy Morgan) provocatively comes on to everything in pants threatening an incident like the one the men just left. (The director can’t decide whether the woman is sympathetically lonely or just a loose woman as a result of which the actress appears uncommitted to one or the other.) It isn’t long before Lennie accidentally kills the newborn puppy he’s given.
On the positive side, foreman Slim (naturalistic actor Matthew Montelongo) is fair and even tempered. And when Candy (excellent Edward Seamon), the ranch’s elderly handyman, suggests he add his savings to that of George and Lennie, a purchase of their own place becomes genuinely plausible.
Things go horribly wrong when, once again, Lennie innocently causes death. The story’s finale is tragic.
To my mind, Director Mark Lamos leaves too many bunk hands without individual attributes. It’s possible he sees them as interchangeable, of course, and is setting a washed background to heighten lead characters, but the scenario seems less realistic. When one of the men insists on killing Candy’s elderly dog, there are a series of pauses that continue so long one wonders whether someone has forgotten a line. I made a cup of tea.
Steinbeck’s own adaptation is economic and deft.
The production is adroitly rendered. Scenic design by Michael Yeargan is evocative, spare, seemingly covered in dust. Robert Weitzel’s lighting works in tandem to create a nuanced, dun colored world. The ombre sky is painterly. Jane Greenwood’s costumes evoke Dorothea Lange photos of the time and place. Sound and original music by John Gromada work symbiotically to enhance, almost invisible in their aptness.
Despite the lack of glowing commendation here, this is an excellent theater and one not local to many. Avail yourself of their streaming.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson
Opening Photo: Mark Mineart and Brian Hutchinson
Westport Country Playhouse presents
Of Mice and Men
Based on the 1937 John Steinbeck novel and Adapted by Steinbeck
2008 Production from the Archives
Directed by Mark Lamos
Streaming Through September 26, 2021