George and Lennie are still fantasizing about "livin' off the fat a' the land" 68 years after they first drank from the banks of the Salinas River on their way to jobs bucking barley outside Soledad. After all these years, Steinbeck's timeless masterwork still evokes the loneliness and hardship of their transitory lifestyle, the mark of a great classic that isn't going anywhere soon.
Gene Reynolds directs an austere but genuine return to rural California in the 1930s, featuring sincere and committed performances from a fine company of players. Every one of the actors playing ranch hands is an asset, but William Schallert is particularly memorable as Candy, the old swamper recruited into George and Lennie's dream of owning their own "little place." Schallert is sufficiently heartbreaking, finding the character without scratching his chin and sounding like Gabby Hayes, itself a noteworthy achievement. David Guzzone's George is a fox-like, wiry little guy, whose loyalty toward his childhood friend is fiercely real, but he's occasionally sidetracked by a few almost choreographed directorial moments. Like Candy, the role of Lennie is filled with traps, and Andre Hotchko falls into a good number of them, although he's close to getting it right. He presents the standard cartoon version of the big lummox who likes to pet mice and farmer's wives until they break, bringing a too-contemporary humor to the role. In doing so, he misses the underlying frustration of a guy who knows he's dumb and living in an inexplicable fog but can't find his way out of it. There's surely a lot more to mine with an actor of Hotchko's talent, but that's where better direction comes in.
Reynolds' unimaginative staging also hampers this worthwhile effort, overlooking so many possibilities, considering the wide playing space available. The mood is shattered as actors shift set pieces in blue light, when there's more than enough area on this stage not to have to alter anything but the lights. Still, unlike so many plays of the era, this one stands up regardless of problems or omissions. The pseudo-familial bond linking these two lost souls, joined by the others warily sharing their nomadic existence, still takes on a captivating poetic quality without becoming melodramatic--and it continues to look a lot like today.