Of Mice and Men
Moonbox Productions brings some of the most powerful performances of the season to the stage with a fine cast for John Steinbeck’s adaptation of his own classic novel.
"Of Mice and Men" is a Depression-era classic that seems so familiar that it’s easy to overlook its timelessness -- and, in the ongoing economic downturn, its timeliness. It’s a complex story built on the archetypally simple premise of what it means for people to look out for one another.
George (Phil Tayler) finds himself in the role of caretaker for Lennie (Harry McEnerny), a childlike man with the strength of a mule. Lennie’s ability to work harder than any three men combined makes him an asset as the two move from job to job, but his intellectual handicap wreaks all sorts of havoc. Most recently, the two have been run out of a small town after Lennie, attracted by a woman’s soft red dress, grabbed a handful of its fabric -- unfortunately, while the woman was wearing it. Her panic and subsequent claims of having been "raped" spurred George and Lennie’s exodus.
Now the two have a new job lined up on a ranch run by a stern, no-nonsense man known simple as "The Boss" (Phil Thompson). The Boss has a belligerent son called Curley (Glen Moore), who delights in picking fights with larger men to prove how tough he is. But Curley’s insecurities extend beyond his bantamweight stature; he’s forever chasing around the ranch to ensure that his new wife (Erica Spyres) isn’t dallying with the ranch hands.
The wife is a study in womanly temptation of a Biblical nature. She’s not even given a name; she’s simply referred to (and credited) as "Curley’s wife," as though she were his property or his pet. In this context, and given the attitude of the men around her, this might not be so far from the case. Curley’s wife is pretty, and she’s used to the ways of the city, where she grew up. She’s naturally flirtatious, to a degree, and she’s sociable. Bored, and with no one else around by the men to talk with, she’s forever finding reasons to hang around the ranch hands’ house.
These characters are the central ingredients for the story and action, and seeing how events set off consequences is like watching rows of dominoes fall. Even George, who is kind at heart, is rough and raw around the edges, and the soft, feminine ways of Curley’s wife prompts him to label her "a tart," evidently for the sin of being an attractive woman.
But underneath all this puffed-up heterosexual strutting there’s also a powerful homoerotic current. Curley keeps one hand ensconced in a Vaseline-filled glove -- a courtesy, he insists, for his wife. The ranch hands aren’t so sure; to them it sounds a bit "dirty," and given Curley’s penchant for getting into scraps with big men, one has to wonder just what else he’s keeping that hand primed for.
Where there’s homoeroticism, of course, there’s homophobia. More than once the question arises of why George and Lenny travel together; it’s not commonplace for men of their career path. George bristles when it’s suggested that their arrangement is somehow a little "strange," and he tells those who ask about it that he’s promised Lenny’s now-deceased aunt that he’d look after him.
But there does seem to be more than that to their connection. There’s no hint of anything sexual, but the affection between the two men is unmissable. George complains about the same things any man would complain about when charged with looking after a child, or an elder, or someone of diminished capacity: "I could live so nice and easy," he frets, if only he were free of the responsibility of looking after Lennie.
But there’s a slight smile behind the gripes and insults he aims at Lennie. In a way, George’s stewardship of Lennie is a less noxiously controlling version of Curley’s marriage; Lennie, who is essentially a child, falls someplace between younger sibling and pet for George, and when George recounts how he used to bully and trick Lennie early in their travels together there’s an echo of the same sort of guilt an older brother might experience once he’s achieved a certain level of maturity and come to realize that what he once thought was good clean fun was actually cruel and malicious conduct toward someone more vulnerable. Where George struggles to live up to his better nature, Curley surrenders to his brutality.
In contrast, Lennie is a gentle soul who forgets how large and strong he is. Lennie creates as much harm and havoc as anyone else, albeit inadvertently; when Curley finally does take a poke at him, Lennie puts him down without so much as breaking a sweat. The times being what they are, and these people being who they are, the eventual outcome is inevitable.
Harder to parse is the message, in part because Steinbeck has packed so much social comment into the play. Stable hand Crooks (Calvin Braxton), an African American, is left to sleep in the barn, where he’s created a far more civilized nest (books, a comfortable bed) than the ranch hands enjoy. What Crooks doesn’t get is the pleasure of anyone’s company, outside of horseshoe matches. Older ranch hand Candy (Ed Peed) fears that he’s just about outlived his usefulness and will soon be discarded; the way another hand, Carlson (Jordan Sobel) pushes Candy into giving up his aged dog only reaffirms to the older man that the slice of human society in which he lives has little margin for the care and feeding of the weak or elderly.
When George and Lenny hatch a plan with Candy to buy a parcel of land and sustain themselves on their own farm, Crooks is cynical at first -- and then deeply interested, and why shouldn’t he be? Surely there could be a place, somewhere, for the dispossessed and the misfits?
In Steinbeck’s milieu, dreams are built up only to be dashed. It’s a characteristic of his work (recurring in his other classic works such as "The Grapes of Wrath" and "East of Eden") that the only things that survives the vagaries of life are the human connections we make, assuming we are fortunate enough to make them. Human spite and folly, together with random chance, continually tear at those connections, and it’s as much a matter of the will as the heart that we maintain them.
The cast could have spent a month at a ranch picking up the demeanor and affect of the men they portray, so accurate are their performances. Under Allison Olivia Choat’s direction they imbue Steinbeck’s dialogue with authenticity instead of letting its studied rhythms lapse into artifice or irony. McEnerny and Tayler stand out in particular, partly because they have the most to do, and they each do it so well.
In McEnerny’s case, the task is to portray someone of low intelligence in a way that feels accurate and complete; he does this, avoiding the pitfalls that undo so many performances by smart actors required to play characters of limited intelligence. Tayler brings layer after conflicted layer to his portrayal of George, creating a finely balanced performance that communicates both George’s frustration and the sustaining quality of his guardianship over Lennie.
The production’s technical aspects are just as well executed. Dan Rodriguez provides an original soundtrack that’s used the way film scores are, to enhance the emotional experience without being distracting. Jeffrey E. Salzberg does notable work as the production’s lighting designer, especially in an early scene that unfolds as daylight fades to evening. Fabian Aguilar’s costumes fit the period, the circumstances, and the characters. Courtney Nelson’s stage design is especially striking, both for its simplicity and its metaphorical cleverness; the set is rough and unfinished around the edges, and looks rather as though it’s made from driftwood. It instantly evokes a plaintive and yet untethered existence -- the very sort of life these characters live.
Moonbox Productions is a small company, and "Of Mice and Men" is a chestnut among theater works. Don’t be fooled by either of these things. The company delivers top-tier work.
"Of Mice and Men" continues through Dec. 22 at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre.
Tickets cost $30 (students pay $25) and available online at bostontheatrescene.com or via phone at 617-933-8600.
Performance schedule: Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm; Sundays at 2pm.