Arizona Theatre Company (ATC), in another extraordinary and stirring collaboration with Milwaukee Repertory, presented John Steinbeck’s famous “Of Mice and Men” at Herberger Theater last night. As many know too well, the play/novel features innumerable sadly destitute, human stories–at the center of which are two nomadic ranch-hand friends, Lennie and George– during the Great Depression. Yet, particularly in this production, an irrepressible, frail hope survived.
Lugubrious harmonica with solemn guitar music opened and segued the play’s scenes, setting the dark thematic mood. The melodic strains were contrasted against a tranquil sunset in the great wide open as Lennie (Scott Greer) and George (Jonathan Wainwright) entered, pausing for the freedom of it before heading to the bunkhouse on the ranch of their new employer. Greer and Wainwright’s skilled exchange established George’s mildly irritated care-taking role and Lennie’s challenged mental faculties with an ease that suggested they’d been at the same argument with the same reliance on one another for a good, long spell.
After that first beautifully pained glimpse of their pursuit of a safe, personalized American Dream, we witnessed the same needy desire, expressed over and over again, in almost all the supporting characters. The necessity of human connection and the profound solitude in its absence wove an enthralling tragedy that kept the audience in rapt silence.
Slim (James Farruggio), the overseer of Lennie and George’s labor team, was one of the first to demonstrate his nonthreatening understanding of their necessary bond without judgment.
“A guy don’t need no sense to be a nice fella,” to be good company, he said early on before we witnessed the devastating effect of another character’s, Candy’s (James Pickering), loyal companion disappearing.
By the second act, Crooks (Chike Johnson) was so desperate for companionship when Lennie entered his bunk-room unannounced, he detailed with convincing juxtaposition the need. After holding Lennie at gunpoint one moment and inviting him to sit the next, his actions as well as the dialogue depicted that another soul didn’t even need to listen, just mere presence could stanch the unbearable loneliness.
Whereas the varied, creative thematic repetition in concentric and overlapping circles is owing to Steinbeck, Director Mark Clements’ wisdom deepened their marks with many effective choices.
In ATC’s production, rather than the “tart” that all the ranch hands presume, even Curley’s Wife (Kelley Faulkner) played the difficult but brilliant angle that she too was but an innocent victim of loneliness. She never felt even a little like a seductress as so many past interpretations have rendered her.
Every character was on a concentrated sojourn for connection and the soothing presence of another breathing soul. It left the audience so engrossed, even holding its breath, that particular theatrical devices were devastating. For instance, crackling bones literally resounded across the silent theater as Curley’s (Bernard Balbot) hand was mashed in Lennie’s sickening vice grip.
That scenic designer Todd Edward Ivins “loves to tell stories through design” [per program bio] was evident in every board and nail. Much like each character was depicting a similar plight, every set change–until the final scene–became increasingly suffocating.
As the liberated opening scene changed, lengths of fluid, draping burlap collapsed to the floor, were replaced by a dwarfing, oppressive bunkhouse structure. The later towering facade of blacksmith Crooks’ room was a bit more claustrophobic, while the last ranch scene was one step more confined, cluttered with straw bales. More and more the solid constraints of society plagued the protagonist’s dreams.
Clements’ director’s note quotes the Robbie Burns poem from which Steinbeck’s title is drawn. “Best laid schemes O’ mice and men often go awry.” And indeed, on so many levels and in too many ways, the characters had dream after dream shattered.
Yet when a story is told as flawlessly, unflinchingly and lovingly as this ATC production, a different meaning was provided berth to wriggle to the surface. That is, if honoring the holiness of human generosity and connection is at the heart of this play, then perhaps a window to uplifting interpretation presents even within the closing violent tragedy.
The opening scene and closing scene of this production came full circle, and both offered the serenity and freedom of open vistas at sunset, removed from a culture of harsh judgment. We were allowed the most vibrant, almost tangible vision the play had yet offered of George and Lennie’s kindred paradise in the final moments of “Of Mice and Men.” That return to the stunning visual image of hope-filled Lennie at the fluid, sustaining watering hole was the wrenching tableau holding potential–even through the grief–to inspire as it traveled home with each of us.