The figures of the hulking, dumb Lennie and his faithful, intelligent sidekick George in John Steinbeck’s classic “Of Mice and Men” have entered the public consciousness as parodies. People of a certain age are probably most aware of them as caricatures in Warner Bros. cartoons, with the much larger Lennie figure constantly asking his companion to “Tell me about the rabbits.” But Steinbeck’s 1937 play, based on his own novel, is a painfully honest study of human loneliness as Lennie and George seek to find a home amid the cruel landscape of Depression-era California. The Acting Company’s touring production, now at the Baruch Performing Arts Center for a brief stay, obliterates the clichés and concentrates on the desperate longing for connection among its drifting set of characters. Here, Lennie is not a comical, lumbering oaf but a tragic victim of his gigantic strength and limited brain power.
Lennie and George make a meager living as ranch hands, moving from place to place and dreaming of earning enough to buy a farm of their own, where Lennie can tend his beloved rabbits. But their illusion of stability comes crashing down when Lennie’s attraction for soft objects and small animals results in serious trouble.
Christopher Michael McFarland captures Lennie’s gentle tenderness and unthinking power. Like a monstrous child, McFarland wrings his hands and blubbers when Lennie is caught with a dead mouse or puppy; you can see the child’s anxious need to please in his large eyes. Likewise, Joseph Midyett perfectly conveys George’s cocky bravado and sentimental interior. The pause he takes as George realizes that his ideal little farm will never materialize is heart-stopping.
Director Ian Belknap wisely remembers that this is an ensemble piece and not just a vehicle for the two leads. Staging the play with subtlety and simplicity, he balances Lennie and George’s goals with those of the rest of the characters. All of the pathetic creatures inhabiting the ranch are seeking a bond with another person, and the strong cast passionately pursues that objective. Even the trampy wife of Curley, the ranch boss’ obnoxious son, is fully dimensional, with her own needs, and Megan Bartle is delightfully sleazy and movingly sympathetic in the role. Joseph Tisa and Yaegel T. Welch give depth to Candy and Crooks, two outsiders yearning to find a place to belong. There’s also admirable work from Michael McDonald, Noah Putterman, Chris Thorn, and, in two disparate roles, Ray Chapman.
Neil Patel’s stark set, Daniel B. Chapman’s prairie-pure lighting, and Fitz Patton’s Aaron Copeland–influenced music create the right rustic atmosphere for this memorable “Of Mice and Men.”
Presented by the Acting Company at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Ave., NYC. Dec. 4–8. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, or www.theatermania.com. Casting by McCorkle Casting.
Critic’s Grade: A