Thursday, October 10, 2013

Of Mice and Men -- Dramaworks' Bold Production



Robert Burns: The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go often awry

I say "bold" in the subject heading but I could have easily said "daring."  It's not the type of drama which some people seek out.  It is delivered with such intensity that some moments land on the audience like a sledgehammer.  But if any play suits Dramaworks to a tee, it's Of Mice and Men, a play about simple dreams dashed by chance and circumstances, the inherent vulnerability of characters who are striving for the basic things in life, a place to live and some security. Dramaworks knows how to pick great dramas of this nature and breathe life into them.

Of Mice and Men is among one of Steinbeck's greatest works, not as famous as Grapes and Wrath or East of Eden of course, but it's a novella consisting almost entirely of dialogue.  It reads like a play and it sweeps the reader along into its inevitable, tragic conclusions.  Steinbeck designed it as such --- to convert it to a play. Reading stories such as Of Mice and Men, where the characters are "acting out" the themes of the work through dialog and their actions, gives it that unique momentum, unlike more descriptive literary works.  Seeing it live on stage pushes you to deeply empathize with real people, as if you are transported to their time, place, and circumstance.

There are not many plays more painful to watch in my opinion, because nearly every character is so seriously flawed, and so on his / her road to ruin.  Alas, "the best laid schemes....often go awry."  On a macro level, the setting of the dust bowl migration leaves them even more at risk.  These are migratory workers in the field, set in a ranch in California not far from Steinbeck's home town.  Here is society's most vulnerable stratum, and it is their inherent loneliness as migrant workers and their unreachable dreams that are laid threadbare in this production

It takes a certain ear to capture real dialogue, and as Steinbeck himself grew up in Salinas, California during those times, and spent some time on ranches with migrant workers, he is a master, and if you see this play and/or read the novella, this is something to be appreciated, savored, as it is a language that almost manifests the hardship, the loneliness, and the ill-fated destiny of the characters. Ironically, the language itself catapulted the book onto censorship lists, especially when first published, but probably in some sections of the country, it is still not taught.

It is also a work about friendship and trust, a unique, almost symbiotic relationship between two men.  They rely on one another, George the orchestrator of their lives (or whatever modicum of control he has) and Lennie, a quiet innocent giant of limited mental capacity dependent on what George says and the dreams that George spins to keep them both going.

George: Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no fambly. They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake and then they go into town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.

Lennie:. That’s it—that’s it. Now tell how it is with us.

George: With us it ain’t like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don’t have to sit-in no bar room blowin’ in our jack jus’ because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us.

Lennie: But not us! An’ why? Because . . . . because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.

In trying to explain their relationship to Slim, the mule driver, perhaps the most "normal" person on the ranch, George says the following, indicating to Lennie with this thumb: He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though. Hell of a nice fella, but he ain’t bright. I’ve knew him for a long time.

To which Slim replies, Ain’t many guys travel around together.  I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.

George and Lennie's dreams are just that simple:  "Jus livin offa the fatta the lan" with Lennie tending to the rabbits. It is the American Dream at its most basic.  A place to live, a little happiness? This a leitmotif in the play.

Crooks, the black stable hand, knows a thing or two about being lonely and ostracized, and recognizes in Lennie a somewhat kindred spirit.  More foreshadowing as he says to Lennie: I seen hunderds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads. Hunderds of them. They come, an’ they quit an’ go on; an’ every damn one of ‘em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ‘em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head.

One of the catalysts in bringing the play towards its dark conclusion is the one truly unlikeable character, Curley, the "The Bossman's" son, constantly needing to prove himself, incredibly possessive of but inattentive to his new wife (unnamed in the play, an interesting subliminal message about Steinbeck's attitude towards women - or at least their place in the play).  Candy, the aging worker who is now confined to the most menial tasks around the ranch warns George and Lennie: Curley’s like alot of little guys. He hates big guys. He’s alla time picking scraps with big guys. Kind of like he’s mad at ‘em because he ain’t a big guy. You seen little guys like that, ain’t you? Always scrappy?

George: I seen plenty tough little guys. But this Curley better not make no mistakes about Lennie. Lennie ain’t handy, but this Curley punk is gonna get hurt if he messes around with Lennie.

Candy: Well, Curley’s pretty handy. “Never did seem right to me. S’pose Curley jumps a big guy an’ licks him. Ever’body says what a game guy Curley is. And s’pose he does the same thing and gets licked. Then ever’body says the big guy oughtta pick somebody his own size, and maybe they gang up on the big guy. Never did seem right to me. Seems like Curley ain’t givin’ nobody a chance.”

There are no chances for Lennie and George's simple dream to become a reality (and for Candy as well, who wants to be included).  The final catalyst is Curley's wife, who is generally regarded as a slut by the ranch hands, but nevertheless dreams of becoming a movie star, and is the ideal magnet to draw Lennie (and herself) into the play's inevitable conclusion.  I'll not quote it here but in the second act, Curly's wife and Lennie "talk" to each other, expressing their hopeless dreams, but neither are capable of listening to the other.  It is a conversation entirely in counterpoint.

This was an absolutely perfect script for J. Barry Lewis, the veteran, knowledgeable, Resident Director of Dramaworks, to bring out the themes of this play by maximizing the superb talents of his actors and utilizing the 'state of the art' stage now available in their new space.  It is truly the ideal designed theatre for both sides of the fourth wall, bringing the audience into the performance.

Here is the information from the Dramaworks' web site, just so I get all the names right:
Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production is directed by J. Barry Lewis and features John Leonard Thompson (George), Brendan Titley (Lennie), Paul Bodie, Cliff Burgess, Frank Converse, Dennis Creaghan, Betsy Graver, Christopher Halladay, Wayne Steadman, and Ricky Waugh. Scenic design is by Michael Amico, costume design by Leslye Menshouse, lighting design by John Hall, and sound design by Matt Corey.

Many of these artists are veteran Dramaworks' actors or technical people.  All are at the top of their game in this production so it is hard to single out comments on one each, but I'll make a few points.

First and foremost John Leonard Thompson carries a heavy load in the play, being on stage most of the time, playing George with a focused intensity, trying to manage Lennie and keep him out of trouble, keep the dream intact and attempt to fit into the ranch and keep their jobs and at the same time keep their plans secret (unsuccessfully as Candy becomes part of the hopeless scheme and even Crooks tries to join in).  And of course trying to avoid the inevitable conclusion of the play, so shocking, even though most in the audience (I hope at least) knew how it would end.  It is a part demanding such energy (and ability to memorize massive regional dialogue) so hats off to him.

Brendan Titley is one of the newcomers to Dramaworks, a young but experienced Shakespearean actor who does a heartfelt job portraying Lennie -- a difficult part to play but he always manages to secure the empathy of the audience

An award-winning supporting performance is given by Dennis Creaghan, an absolutely perfect depiction of the old rancher, Candy, whose beloved old dog has just been shot to put him out of his misery.  He fears that he too has become too old and useless and knows that his time at the ranch will be at an end sooner than later.  He is irresistibly drawn to the scheme of sharing in George and Lennie's dream of owning a small ranch which he can help them realize (he was given a small amount of money as compensation from an accident that severed his hand). 

I loved Cliff Burgess's characterization of Slim, the one person who seems to have reconciled himself to his job on the ranch, goes about his business in an upbeat way -- a fair-minded person.  His presence on the stage and the way Burgess comports himself in the part was always a relief, lessening the heavy tension on stage for a moment or two.

W. Paul Bodie is ideal as Crooks, the stable hand, who actually has his own room -- he's not allowed to play cards with the other boys or even enter the bunk house because he is black.  He's resentful about that, but ironically, he has something none of the other workers have, his own place.  Crooks accepts his lot in life on the one hand and is angry on the other, Bodie expressing that contradiction perfectly.

Curley's wife is admirably played by Betsy Graver and while she is not on stage that often, she creates a contrast to the bland monolithic "colors" of the workers.  Simply, she lights up the stage with her seductive looks and dress, a femme fatale in every sense of the term.

The remaining cast members give professional performances in every way, but one last comment on the acting, and that is the brief, but powerful role of "The Boss" by one of the stage's (and movie and TV) most experienced actors, Frank Converse.  He is larger than life while on stage.  Coincidentally we have a geographic connection as he lives in Weston, CT (where we lived for some 25 years) and were fortunate to see him in some productions at the Westport Country Playhouse over the years. 

Michael Amico uses representative design, with one major set -- sort of a Tabula rasa with added extras to effectively portray a sandy bank on the Salinas River, the ranch bunkhouse, the barn, and the stable hand's room.  There is actually a hatch that opens on the stage floor filled with water to represent a river and along with the sound effects and lighting, the audience is drawn into the image and supplies the "rest" allowing the characters to do the storytelling.  His designs always seem to be exactly the right one for the play, difficult to construct after being properly imagined.

Leslye Menshouse's costumes were designed right out of the Sears, Roebuck catalogues for the times -- probably where the characters would have bought their clothing, and then underwent serious "distressing" to reflect the years of hard labor and the few clothing changes men of the fields wore.  They had the look of the WPA photographs from the dust bowl migration.

Lighting shifts are numerous and dramatically effective, using the stage design to its greatest advantage and well coordinated with myriad sound effects, of wildlife, dogs howling in the distance, of men outside the barn, horseshoes thudding and making ringers.

This is a major production, and in the intimate Dramaworks' surroundings, the audience becomes part of the tragic events that unfold, but also -- hopefully -- with the sense that we all share, as human beings -- the same feelings, wanting to be connected (and I don't mean Facebook) with others.  Nonetheless, some will see this production as dark, very dark, and in many ways it is that too, but Steinbeck (and Dramaworks) are striving for a more empathetic appreciation of universal human needs.  A play not to be missed.  

Disclaimer:  I've decided to add this to my "reviews" of books, plays, etc.  I am not a professional reviewer, and do not pretend to be, so all my views are strictly personal.  Also, we saw a preview performance of the play, a dress rehearsal, so undoubtedly it will improve with more performances, although, to me, it seemed polished out of the gate.