Set in Northern California in 1937, Of Mice and Men tells the tragic story of two displaced migrant ranch workers named George Milton and Lennie Small. Near the end of the Great Depression, the two men, with little more than their friendship, travel from place to place, in search of job opportunities in hopes of one day having a farm of their own where they dream of "living off the fat of the land." Despite the best of intentions, the mentally disabled Lennie unwittingly places both of them in a situation from which there is no return.
The title is taken from the Robert Burns' poem "To a Mouse", which reads: "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men often go awry." The book, which was once required reading for many schools, appears on the American Library Association's list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century due to questions of vulgarity and potentially offensive and racist language.
One wonders how effectively a novel such as Steinbeck's can be transferred to the stage, worrying that tampering with such a narrative piece may somehow weaken it. In truth, some of the glory of his imagery is lost in translation, but the strength with which he writes his characters, and the texture with which the characters use language remains intact. Of Mice And Men immerses the audience in the midst of men whose lives have been honed by a decade of want. Their want is one born of the financial hardship of a whole nation, now grappling with the unattainability of the American Dream. They are left with profound loneliness and a longing for the bond of genuine male companionship. It is interesting that Steinbeck did not write of longing for a family or romantic love, and that the only female in the cast doesn't even have a name. She is merely referred to as "Curley's Wife." It would seem that in a world where they are cast adrift, and left perhaps incapable of supporting a family of their own, these men understandably turn instead toward an idealized concept of brotherly love from which to derive comfort and a sense of community.
The Palm Beach Drama Works production does indeed steep us in the feelings, the smells and the sounds of this piece. They gathered character actors adept at painting pictures through their stage craft. W. Paul Bodie (Crooks), Ricky Waugh (Whit), a personable Cliff Burgess (Slim), a crusty Wayne Steadman (Carlson), and a nearly heartbreaking Dennis Creaghan (Candy) all give us moments fresh and new with characters we've never met, though they seem somehow so familiar and real. Of these men, Creaghan goes a long way toward establishing an understated yet palpable hunger for the sense of security that is a central theme of the play.
Frank Converse is oddly stilted as The Boss, never really seeming to connect to his character or the other actors. Christopher Halladay seems to struggle finding the right edge to his character. The edge he chooses does not seem to ever settle; we just get a sense of unease and agitation. John Leonard Thompson handles the role of George smoothly, though one could ask for him to be more clearly motivated by the urgency of his character's needs.
The lovely Betsy Graver is perfection as Curley's Wife. She handles the callow character with equal measures of flirtation and innocence. The character is unknowingly a dangerous element added to the mix. Graver's handling of the final scene with Lennie is exceptionally well done. She is obviously very aware of her body language and how to use it to full advantage. Every line, every look, and every staged movement shared with Lennie in this difficult scene look genuine and organic.
The play rightfully belongs to Brendan Titley as Lennie. He is a mixture of man and child. While he gives us a character subject to the whims of his urges, he is not a victim. Titley is a gifted actor who captures the essence of this character, without ever making him a caricature. His touching performance is what is at the heart of a moving evening of theatre at the Palm Beach Drama Works.
The Palm Beach Drama Works production of Of Mice and Men played at Don & Ann Brown Theatre through November 17, 2013. Palm Beach Drama Works is a professional not-for-profit theatre company hiring local and non-local Equity and non-Equity actors and actresses. Their goal is to engage and entertains audiences with provocative and timeless productions that personally impact each individual. The theatre is located at 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, FL 33401. For information you can reach them by phone at 561-514-4042, or online at www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
*Indicates a member of Actor's Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.