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Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol

Of Mice and Men
Westport Country Playhouse

Of Mice and Men
Mark Mineart and Brian Hutchison
The esteemed and highly talented play director Mark Lamos studied the violin when he was a boy. Those who often watched as he skillfully orchestrated production after production for seventeen years at Hartford Stage will not be surprised to hear that his touch is evident throughout in a lovely and disciplined presentation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, running at the Westport Country Playhouse through November 1st. Lamos thoroughly honors the presence of the late Paul Newman, originally designated to direct this show, with his careful and (thanks, in part, to designers) beautiful effort. I have always thought that Lamos's early musical training is evident within his presentations, rich in texture and nuance.

Steinbeck crafted his novel and script based upon his own time as a bindlestiff (one who carries his bedding as he walks along) in California during the 1930s. Two such men are the pivotal figures of the play—George (Brian Hutchison), who is bright but bitter, and Lennie (Mark Mineart), large, affable, but simple and (one surmises) slow. That said, these individuals are human, bound to one another, and mutual loyal through their friendship. George is steadfastly determined in his quest to own some land. Lennie loves animals, especially rabbits.  He will follow George and attempts to heed his wiser friend's counsel.

The Westport County Playhouse rendering is lyrical and even, at times, tender. No designer is more evocative than Michael Yeargan, and his sets for Of Mice and Men facilitate exquisite tone and atmosphere. The show opens as the protagonists walk along a riverbed on a Thursday evening as the sun sets. Yeargan's winding, cut-through flooring benefits greatly from Robert Wierzel's specific lighting. Later, a small cooking fire is simulated. Toward the end of the show, shadow and light describe the interior of a dark barn ...

As the detailed period piece moves along, we meet many supportive characters. These include rickety, one-handed Candy (Edward Seamon), who realizes his time is short, and his beloved dog, whose time is even shorter. Actor Mateo Gomez plays nasty Boss who runs a ranch where George and Lennie are boarding. Curly (Rafael Sardina), Boss's son, instantly dislikes Lennie. Curley's Wife (Betsy Morgan) is blonde, seductive, and very much alone in the world. Slim (Matthew Montelongo) is a sympathetic leader of a team in the field, while Crooks (Kene Holliday) is the only ranch hand who is black. His quarters (the aforementioned barn) are separated from others' lodging, and Crooks, philosophical and smart, knows what's going on. Actors Sean Patrick Reilly, playing Whit, and Tommy Nohilly, as Carlson, round out the strong cast.

Lennie, trying to stay out of trouble, cannot avoid it as his physical strength is undeniable and, unwittingly, he finds himself in one fix after another. This seems both cruel and inevitable. George, however exasperated, desperately wishes to protect his companion—and himself. George forces himself to hope for better days ahead.

From the moment the red curtain rises and theatergoers see the "sandy bank of the Salinas River," the play exerts its pull. It is not fast paced, but thematically relevant and very much alive. The artistic team is excellent. John Gromada's sound design and music prove most complementary, as are Jane Greenwood's costumes. The production receives an assist in fight logistics from B.H. Barry.

Steinbeck, in a New York Times interview published more than seventy years ago, said, "I worked in the same county that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person." The writer then explains that not each and every moment is literal. The Westport Country Playhouse rendering reinforces the playwright's authenticity. Lamos and his actors are precise and this production is one to savor.

Of Mice and Men continues at Westport Country Playhouse through November 1st. For tickets, call (203) 227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


Also see the current theatre schedule for Connecticut & Beyond

- Fred Sokol



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