OF MICE AND MEN – An emotional tale of friendship, dreams, and reality brought to life at Bridge Players Theatre Company this weekend.
OF MICE AND MEN was an experimental novella written by John Steinbeck in 1937 and is drawn from the writer’s own experiences in the 1920’s as a bindlestiff. This essentially was a hobo who carried his belongings on a stick while migrating to find work. Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California and drew inspiration from the prosperous farming community for most of his early works. Of his childhood home he once wrote, “I think I would like to write the story of the whole valley, of all the little towns and ranches in the wilder hills. I could see how I’d like to do that and it would be the valley of the world”. He eventually wrote East of Eden as a tribute to Salinas. But thirteen years prior he completed OF MICE AND MEN.
Bridge Players Theater Company in Burlington County New Jersey is in a current run of the great American play under the directorial skills of Gabrielle Affleck (DRACULA; KIMBERLY AKIMBO), and are presenting an exceptional production. The theater should be lauded for keeping the dialogue intact, as it has come under attack in recent years for what some consider offensive and racist language. Censoring this work would essentially eliminate its purpose of confronting the very subject matter Steinbeck was exposing. OM&M is, at its heart, a story of friendship, alliances, loneliness, and the human need of dreams of better lives. This latter subject is as relevant today as it was during the Great Depression and why the story resonates with today’s audiences.
The story is of quick minded George Milton and his big, strong, child minded companion Lennie Small. Both men are displaced migrant farm workers who have bonded together for mutual protection and share a dream of owning their own piece of land which they can farm and answer to no one but themselves. George, embodied by Breen Rourke, is the keeper of the dream. He has told the story to Lennie so often to comfort his companion that he himself has bought into the dream also. Lennie, as much a child mentally as he is huge in stature, relies on George to be his friend and guide to achieving the reality of their dream.
Rourke connects George to audiences by imbuing him with understated compassion. He delivers his lines in a manner of reluctant defender and when his delivery is done in protection of Lennie you feel the desperation of his situation. He knows their employment is essential not only for survival but for the attainment of their shared dream and must not let Lennie jeopardize their positions. But he never loses sight of Lennie’s need of his protection. Rourke, who has a flair for playing emotionally layered characters, transitions George’s emotions easily, maneuvering through feelings of compassion for Lennie to outright scorn and admonishment of Curley’s wife, played by Rachel Comenza.
Comenza is tasked with playing a character who might be easily dismissed as a trouble making tart and is the femme fatale for the character of Lennie. Steinbeck himself once explained that Curley’s wife is “not a person, but a symbol”. Despite this, Comenza skillfully instills the wife with enough human appeal to make the audience appreciate her actions. In her final conversation with Lennie, Comenza shows us that she too is a person with unfulfilled dreams and, as the male characters, a victim of circumstances and status. She transforms the character from simply a symbol to one of relevance. And in so doing concludes the dangerous consequence for Lennie that first settles over the story by the middle of Act 2.
Paul Sollimo plays Lennie Small, the gentle giant who doesn’t understand his own strength nor the consequences of his desire to feel those things of softness, such as fur, dresses and hair. The role of Lennie is by far one of the most intricate parts in American Theater as an actor must be able to convey the character’s childlike mentality but still portray him as a strong man capable of causing harm, and even death. Sollimo does a superb job of endearing the audience to Lennie through proper inflection and facial expressions. It is possible to fear Lennie as an intimidating figure and yet fear for him because of his mental state, which leaves him vulnerable to exploitation. I have seen Sollimo in several productions, most recently in Neil Simon’s RUMORS at BCF in Cinnaminson, and am thoroughly impressed with his natural acting ability and the range of characters he can play. The role of Lennie could very well be a signature role for Sollimo and is certainly worth experiencing.
Affleck assembled a terrific cast for OM&M. Greg Northam plays Candy, an aging ranch hand who sees the writing on the wall that his days are as numbered as the old, sickly dog he keeps by his side. Timothy Kirk as Slim and John Colona as Curley embody the conflict that rages between one who commands respect by giving respect, and one who is despised because of his confrontational and belligerent manner. Richard Priest plays Crooks, the proud but cynically angry stable hand segregated by skin color. All four actors give their characters the depth each deserves and as an audience member your emotions rise and fall with their individual predicaments. Rounding out the cast are Bill Blacker as the Boss, Fred Ezell as Carlson, and Tim Schuman as Whit.
Steinbeck described OM&M as a little lesson in humility. Affleck makes humility the centerpiece of this tale and handily brings out startling performances by this cast. If you are looking for an emotional glimpse into a time of great struggles in America, look no further than this great production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, playing now through May 14th.
Bridge Players Theatre Company
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