Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Of Mice and Men
Also see Richard's review of The Spitfire Grill
But then, of course, I realized director Thompson was right there on social media. So I messaged her, asking: why do all these actors each seem to be doing something new and exciting? (Her answers, from on-the-fly texting, are lightly edited.)
"Yes, I absolutely challenged them to reimagine this world and make different/bold choices, bringing them to life. We added new 'given circumstances,' i.e. Candy, hoping to join George and Lennie on their dreamed-of rabbit farm, but 'gender-passing' for her own survival.
We also have Lennie having the privilege of living in the bunkhouse with the white workers because of (his traveling companion) George, and because of the lighter shade of this Lennie's skin. We're color-exploring the juxtaposition between his skin tone and that of the ostracized, darker-skinned stable-boy Crooksin a variation on the status difference between house slaves and field slaves."
The cumulative effect of both that and Natasha Toro as Candy adds unexpected tension, subtle new frictions, and a heightened sense of danger at SATE's usual home, a chapel just south of Washington University. And this version of Steinbeck's 1938 play seems far removed from the familiar Saturday morning cartoon parodies of our youthmade more real by vibrant characters. Steinbeck is best known for his working class men and women, and this staging finds new dimensions for its heroesand villains.
Adam Flores plays George, the itinerate farmworker roaming California's Salinas River Valley in the dark days of the Great Depression; and Carl Overly, Jr. plays his problematic companion, the childlike giant Lennie. Director Thompson says it was Mr. Flores who suggested the recasting the role of Candy with a Latina woman passing as a man in the migrant fields, based on his own family history. And that opened the door to Ms. Toro as an earnest, unexpectedly tragic version of the disfigured ranch hand. It's an unsettling new twist and a compelling addition to the story.
Omega Jones, as Crooks, gains surprising dramatic power from his reserved, but bitter clash with Lennie, over the latter's light-skinned privilege. Their big scene seems weirdly fresh and doubly provocative, as Crooks sows the seeds of doubt about George's expected return from a night on the town. It's not dissimilar in effect from the most notable inspiration of the production: Ms. Toro as a distaff Candy, her heartfelt plea for escape from a man's lonely life of migrant work becomes deeply, personally resonant as well.
Michael Cassidy Flynn shows an entirely new side as Curly, the jealous, petulant son of the local ranch owner; and Courtney Bailey Parker is warm and foolish and vain as his new wife, who can't seem to stay away from the migrant workers. Her big scene with simple-minded Lennie is full of solitary confessions, with the seemingly innocent confessions from each character intertwining with disastrous results. It's a sort of "non-dialog": two monologs overlapping, hers and his, creating a dangerous resonant frequency between them.
Another big surprise is the return of actor Jack Corey, here as The Boss, after Mr. Corey's 32-year absence from the stage. In terms of theatrical lineage, he came out of the same fine batch of St. Louis University actors that included Lavonne Byers and the late Russ Monika. He's lost none of his sense of stagecraft in the intervening decades.
There are rich performances from everyone in the cast, which includes Joe Hanrahan as a bemused Slim, Shane Signorino as a rowdy farmhand, and Ryan Lawson-Maeske as a wily young rancher with a very funny, insider's knowledge of the local bawdy houses. The bluesy mood is heightened by stirring live music throughout, provided by Chris Ware. And, staged on a dimly lit altar, it all comes to look like parable in search of final judgment.
Of Mice and Men, through November 18, 2017, at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.slightlyoff.org.