John Steinbeck’s devastating tale of down-and-out migrant workers in Depression-era California is an American classic, and required reading for virtually everyone schooled in our country. The challenge of staging such a well-known work–the subject of countless theatrical productions since its premiere in 1937, an Oscar-nominated film of 1939, a remake in 1992, and a made-for-TV movie of 1981–is to retain the emotional impact of Steinbeck’s crushing narrative and harrowing conclusion, since they will come as no surprise to anyone in the audience. People’s Light has done just that, with an outstanding cast, powerful direction, and a respectful adherence to the text.
Peter DeLaurier (an Artistic Associate and long-time company member of People’s Light), who plays the aging ranch-hand Candy with heart-rending pathos, acknowledges that, emotionally, “It’s a costly show for all of us. But Steinbeck is so great, that the best way—the only way–to do it is without adding or changing anything, by just keeping to the original.”
Director David Bradley does not temper the hardened brutality and shocking bigotry of Steinbeck’s novella/play. The production is filled with disturbing language and haunting images that will never leave you, of a lonely and disconnected subclass whose rare sentimental attachments (to a pet, a spouse, a friend) end in even more ravaging heartbreak than their nomadic isolation.
OF MICE AND MEN is not for the faint-hearted. It is difficult to watch the utter hopelessness of these characters’ lives and their dashed dreams of something better—of, according to DeLaurier, “what could have been.” But it is their cruelty to each other that is the most unsettling, with their prejudiced views of blacks, women, and the mentally challenged, mistreating the weakest among them even worse than they have been treated themselves.
The entire ensemble expertly conveys the grim situations and personal misery of Steinbeck’s disenfranchised figures, whose only way out of their wretched existence is a bullet to the head or a broken neck. Ian Bedford as the doomed Lennie is both physically and psychologically empathetic; he combines a childlike excitement and heartwarming innocence with a dull-eyed, mouth-breathing incomprehension of life, and of his own strength. Pete Pryor is fully three-dimensional as Lennie’s devoted friend George; he is at times short-tempered, rough, and impatient, but always protective, concerned, and ultimately merciful. Mark Lazar is loathsome as the predatory Carlson, the relentless bully whose every solution is to take a gun to the less fortunate. And Jessica Bedford balances brassiness with softness as the ranch owner’s unhappy daughter-in-law, who falls victim to Lennie’s unintentional man-handling and triggers the story’s tragic ending.
The supporting cast of Tom Teti as the boss, Chris Faith as his son Curley, Jerry Richardson as Slim, Andrew Kane as Whit, and Lou Ferguson as Crooks brings their legendary roles to life with believability and conviction, and an ingenious set design by Wilson Chin captures the claustrophobic closeness of the men’s bunkhouse and the expansiveness of the Northern California landscape, split by the running water of the Salinas River.
Though set during The Great Depression, OF MICE AND MEN retains its relevancy in our own period of economic decline, unemployment, and proposed cuts to the vital resources of healthcare, social security, and welfare. Its theme of the predicament of migrant workers in our country (shared with the company’s previous production of FALLOW), brings home the need for a culture of compassion, in which others “with a hard life and special needs”–in the words of Pryor–are treated with benevolence and humanity, not savagery or disdain.
OF MICE AND MEN
By John Steinbeck
Directed by David Bradley
February 15–March 25, 2012
People’s Light & Theatre Company
39 Conestoga Road
Malvern, PA 19355