Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck
Directed by Sean Harris
at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through October 28
John Steinbeck’s novel of two ranch hands drifting through Depression Era California has been a must-read classic since it debuted in 1937. The book is a tragic look at the complex and abiding friendship between George, a scrappy loner, and Lennie, a hulking and dimwitted man-child. Less well-known than the masterful novel is Steinbeck’s own stage adaptation of the work which debuted on Broadway in the same year.
West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park revives this rarely-produced classic and it is surprising that any one of Connecticut’s major regional producing houses have not tackled it first. A simple tale simply told, Playhouse on Park’s clear-headed and subtly emotional production is a must-see for those who have never read the novel and those who love this heartbreaking tale.
Told in the traditional three-act structure common to the period (here divided into two acts), the play is a sweet, painful reminder of how we drift through life clinging to unexpected partners. Indeed, George and Lennie are society’s flotsam floating from ranch to ranch, hoping to earn enough money to buy themselves a piece of the American Dream.
Having been chased out of their previous home and job due to Lennie’s proclivity to inappropriately manhandle things that are soft to the touch (frequently a fuzzy animal, but in this case a woman), these two itinerant workers arrive at a new ranch and a clean slate. What they encounter is a well-entrenched system that has Little Room for this odd couple.
George, as played by Jed Aicher, is a tightly-wound coil. Alternately cussing out Lennie and being the sole protector of this feeble-minded giant, Aicher delivers a taut and fidgety performance that cuts to the heart of the character. Shannon Michael Wamser’s Lennie is sweet and childlike, making his uncontrollable need for reassurance and below-the-surface violence all the more heart-rending.
The secondary leads of Robert Britton, as the crusty old ranch hand Candy, and Dustin Fontaine, as the cool-as-a-cucumber Slim, are similarly excellent. Britton is endearing as the seen-it-all coot that has lived most of his life on this ranch and knows that, like his dog, he likely will die there. Fontaine’s lanky muleskinner provides a level-headed antidote to the big dreamers and talkers that surround him. Ted D’Agostino and Harrison Greene fill out the rest of the bunkhouse in fine, Western fashion.
Two other characters, the hot-headed Curley and the bent loner Crooks, are slightly less well served in this production. Tony Knotts’ fiery Curley stomps in every so often looking for his wife, threatens the newcomers, and then stomps off. Played as an oily jerk with a Napoleon complex, Knotts only manages to capture one dimension of this insecure scion of the Ranch’s Boss (played by a fine Jonathan Ross in a brief scene).
Clark Beasley, Jr. plays Crooks, the ranch’s sole African American employee. A part clearly written to be played by a character actor who can invest the role with humor and pathos, Beasley is adequate to the task, but misses enriching this wise man that is cast to the bottom of the totem pole due to his race.
The lone female for miles around, Kimberley Shoniker plays the flirtatious wife of Curley. Although a little less comfortable when being sexually aggressive, Shoniker shines in her intimate tete-a-tete with Lennie. Revealing the layers of insecurity and abandonment, the actress exposes the fear that abides in everyone on the ranch beautifully.
Playhouse on Park’s Artistic Director Sean Harris directs the production with assurance, ably maintaining the focus on the two men at the heart of the play. Harris has assembled a top-notch design team showing that The Playhouse, kicking off its 4th season, is making a bid to be a long-term force to be reckoned with in Connecticut’s splendid professional theatre community.
Photo of Shannon Michael Wamser and Jed Aicher by Richard Wagner.