Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Directed by Ed. Lange
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...loneliest guys in the world."
John Romeo and David Bunce; photo: Joe Schuyler/Schuyler Photography
Sometimes an actor is born to play a certain role. Judging by the New York State Theater Institute’s current production of John Steinbeck’s play "Of Mice and Men" John Romeo was born to play Lennie, the gentle giant created by this very American author back in the 1930s. In this literary work Lennie and his friend George, his opposite in so many ways (played by David Bunce), are on the run from an incident they talk about briefly in the first of the play’s six scenes. They have managed to get hired in another town, on another ranch, and are on their way there, dumped off too early by a bus driver who clearly didn’t like them. The two men, with their goal in sight, decide to spend the night beside a river in the Salinas Valley, and to talk about their lives. It’s a beautiful moment, a gesture or nod to the audience’s need to know more about this odd twosome before the new story unfolds. What they don’t know, but we suspect, is that they are on their way to repeating mistakes and making them worse.
Steinbeck adapted the play from his own novel. It was the first major success he had as an author and his play starred Wallace Ford and Broderick Crawford as George and Lennie, roles taken a year later in the movie version by Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. In neither of those instances were the physical differences between the two men as marked as they are in this new edition. Romeo takes on the total appearance of a man whose mind has retained every aspect of its childishness while his body has surpassed that of other men, both in size and physical strength. His gentle nature cannot be equaled by his uncontrollable muscles. He kills without even knowing that he does it. A mouse, a puppy, it doesn’t matter which. He likes the feel of them. He likes their warmth. He likes to pet them. They die. The remorse he feels is as real as the love. It is like his love for George. It’s size is larger than the large man from which it comes. Romeo plays all of this with a reality that is even larger.
Bunce, on the other hand, as Lennie’s handler, George, is too small a man physically for the love he bears this strange creature he has been with since they were kids. He watches over Lennie like a nanny with a magic umbrella. Unlike Miss Poppins, however, George has social needs of his own and it is during his brief absences that the worst things occur to Lennie. When the two of them arrive at their new job those needs separate the two men once too often and what is sad becomes tragic and what is tragic becomes overwhelming. Bunce has a face and a voice that lets him play the growing tragedy in this play with a total control. He evolves from a romantic to a realist to a figure of Greek theatre proportions. He does it without a flaw or bump or misstep. Here the actor is subsumed in the character’s problems.
The only difficulty in all of this is that the ending of the play is oddly unemotional and not very moving and I don’t know why. Perhaps it is the inevitability of the actions of these two men. Right from the start there is no other course their lives can take. Being who they are, having the shared history they live through, under the circumstances presented there is only one way this can all go and when it gets to the assumed conclusion it does so without shame, horror or even emotion. Perhaps this is why the original play only ran 207 performances and why the film is not considered an American classic. Like so much Steinbeck the work is character driven and not as human and as involving as that of other authors. Its brilliance is in those characters and not in their fates.
The company surrounding these two men are a fabulous ensemble. Joel Aroeste as the ancient farm-hand Candy, is touching and sweet. His own loss - an old dog - touches him and it touches us through him. Aroeste plays this man with compassion and his performance is unforgettable. David Baecker as The Boss is memorable for showing the two sides of a man in only two scenes.
As his son, Curley, David M. Girard, is a ferocious spirit that cannot be diminished even through a major injury. His exact opposite, Carlson, is perfectly played by Ron Komora. The outcast, Crooks, is handled with a slightly mush-mouthed performance by Kevin Craig West who manages to be moving in spite of his assumed accent. Whit and Slim are played by Aaron Marquise and Eric Rose. Both men deliver the goods for their roles.
Mary Jane Hansen is Curley’s Wife. Her desire to escape from the man she married as an escape of another kind is touching and her portrayal of this woman who cannot manage to get a grip on reality is also. When she finally moves another soul to regard her with both love and pity it is at a cost to her that Hansen plays without flaw. Her portrait of this woman almost equals that of Romeo’s Lennie. That fate, or at least the playwright, should place them in the same spot at the same time seems inevitable.
Inevitable, in fact, is the word that best describes this work. There are few surprises here. There is just that sense of what comes next being what comes next. The director, Ed. Lange, does a very good job of keeping that interesting. He handles the period of the play well and he keeps these wildly different people interacting just the way their actual counterparts would have done. It is almost as though we are not watching actors in a play as much as sitting in the barn where they sit, lying in a bunk placed on the opposite wall.
Victor Becker has designed perfectly wonderful settings for the six scenes of this play. They are not real, but they seem to be so. Their reality lasts exactly the length of the scene being played and then we can see that they are not real. Perhaps this adds a dimension to that lack of emotional interplay between the characters and the audience, but perhaps not.
June Wolfe’s costumes couldn’t be better suited to these characters. Matthew E. Adelson has provided both emotional lighting and lighting effects that sing the word "theater." It may be that contrast of the genuine and effective that takes away the empathy and emotion of the final scenes, but maybe not.
With so much right about this play and its production it is simply a wonder as to why it does not grab the heart. It could be, as Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric from a decade later sings, ‘you’ve got to be carefully taught’ to get into the heart and soul of such a man as Lennie. We are too different from him, even where we are the same as him. His plight is specific; as a tragic figure he is so far removed from us. We can sympathize with him but not empathize. Here, without the identification of souls, even George is alien to us though we are perhaps more like him than we would admit. Bang! The show ends and we go home, with the memory of these men and this woman etched into our minds but not necessarily into our hearts. There is some sort of safety there.
Joel Aroeste, Kevin Craig West, David Bunce; photo: Joe Schuyler/Schuyler Photography
Mary Jane Hansen, David Bunce, John Romeo; photo: Joe Schuyler/Schuyler Photography
Of Mice and Men plays at the Schacht Fine Arts Center at Russell Sage College in Troy through November 9. Ticket prices range from $16-$20. For information or tickets contact the NYSTI box office at 518-274.3526.