In many ways, John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men is the classic American story — the reason it is required reading in so many classrooms. Almost every character dreams of or strives toward a better life and even if every character is ultimately deprived of that dream, the longing for personal fulfillment and financial independence is as deeply ingrained in our psyches today as it was when the novella was published in 1937.
Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men, set in rural California during the Great Depression, as a novel-play and adapted it for the stage himself, with the significant if not always harmonious assistance of Broadway playwright and director George S. Kaufman. Though some productions have watered down its rough language, the current version at the Seattle Repertory Theatre retains the profanity, prejudices, and rawness that Steinbeck intended and the Rep deserves congratulations for risking the ire of a few patrons by allowing the play to speak in its own words.
Although Of Mice and Men portrays archetypical American characters (a motley collection of ranch hands) in a classic American setting (a rural farm), the play is structured almost like a Greek tragedy. From the first moment, as the migrant field workers George and Lennie fantasize about setting down on their own piece of land, there is an inevitable forward thrust to the drama, and a sense of foreboding. It is obvious things will not end well for George and Lennie, but Steinbeck is such a master storyteller he keeps us fully engaged through to the very end, and when the two climactic moments come, they are both a shock if not a surprise.
Although the entire cast is strong and the actors play off each other beautifully, Charles Leggett towers over the others with his performance as the developmentally disabled Lennie. From the slackness of his face to his faltering, childlike speech, Leggett completely inhabits the hulking Lennie. His characterization never feels forced or artificial and whether Leggett is describing his joy at petting mice or asking George to tell him over and over again what he should and shouldn’t do, Lennie’s innocence is palpable, and heartbreaking.
Troy Fischnaller does a creditable job as Lennie’s protector, George; even his irritation at Lennie’s need for him to repeat directions and stories is softened by genuine caring. But Fischnaller falls short in the final scene, where he is forced into an act that should tear his heart out. Whether because of the too-rapid pacing of Jerry Manning’s direction or Fischnaller’s limitations at conveying the range of emotions that George must be feeling, the power of the moment is diminished and the play’s ending feels rushed.
The same pacing problem occurs in the scene where Lennie undertakes the horrific action that causes the unraveling of his and George’s dreams. Without giving away the details for those who may not know or have forgotten the plot, suffice it to say that the action takes place too quickly to allow us the space we need to realize the implications of what Lennie has done and to prepare ourselves emotionally for the denouement that follows.
Of Mice and Men features a range of iconic characters besides George and Lennie and director Manning has assembled a talented cast that keeps the stereotypes in line. There’s the mean-spirited owner (The Boss) and his diminutive, vicious son Curley, who ignores his new wife and throws his (light) weight around with the ranch hands; Curley’s bored, idealistic wife (unnamed), who wants to run away to Hollywood; goodhearted mule-driver Slim, who makes the best of the depressing world around him; gun-toting, swaggering ranch mechanic Carlson; young ranch hand Whit; aging, one-handed Candy, maimed in a farm accident; and stable hand Crooks, the sole black worker and a victim of brutish bigotry.
Among the actors, Sean G. Griffin as Candy and Teagle F. Bougere as Crooks are especially noteworthy. Griffin is at the end of his rope but hopeful of a better future as he conspires with George and Lennie to buy the “piece of land,” while Bougere seethes just below the surface. His soliloquy on the ostracism he faces on the ranch and in society is one of the play’s most moving moments, rendered all the more so by Bougere’s restraint in his delivery.
The production team of scenic designer Jennifer Zeyl, lighting designer Robert J. Aguilar, and music/sound designer Robertson Witmer has created an environment that evokes both the vast expanse of Steinbeck's California and the claustrophobic, limited world of the migrant worker. Of Mice and Men may not leave us hopeful or uplifted, but its portrayal of the barriers to realizing the American dream is as true today as it ever was.
If you go: "Of Mice and Men" runs hrough April 10 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. Tickets start at $15 ($12 for those 25 and under) and are available at the theater’s box office, by phone at 206-443-2222 or 877-900-9285 or online.
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