If someone was going to compile a list of books that resemble the structure of a play, “Of Mice and Men” would be featured as one of the most famous examples ever written. Chapters of the novella read like extended scenes of a show with emphasis on dialogue and character conversations.
Shortly after the 1937 story was published, author John Steinbeck wrote a stage adaptation that premiered on Broadway. North Coast Repertory Theatre’s production retains the devastating impact of the source material.
As the Great Depression occurs, an intelligent rancher, George Milton (Jacob Sidney) and his mentally disabled best friend, Lennie Small (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper), travel to a Northern California agricultural valley for work. They help out at a bunkhouse to earn a living in a tough economy.
What both of them keep secret from other employees is that they plan on saving up enough money to live on their own piece of land. George and Lennie’s dream gives them hope even when the boss’ son, Curley (Wallace Bruce), starts to pose a threat to the pair.
Steinbeck’s adaptation takes very few liberties from his own book. Some segments are shortened or altered to be stage friendly. Fortunately, none of the changes ever dishonor his masterpiece.
Of Mice and Men might have been written more than 80 years ago, but the topics Steinbeck dealt with are important to this day. Mental disabilities, financial hardships, sexism, racism and bullyish behavior continue to be as relevant as ever in 2017.
Certain derogatory and racist words like bi*ch and the “N-word” are used in casual fashion. Yet, the language is justified, because Steinbeck shows that cruel words contribute to inequality.
It helps that Sierra Jolene and Laurence Brown are cast in sympathetically written roles. Jolene’s depiction of Curley’s wife, and Brown’s portrayal of the only African-American stable hand, Crooks, highlight the inner pain these characters suffer from a lack of social interaction.
Loneliness is an issue that affects the majority of people at the ranch. Through the performances of John Greenleaf, J. Stephen Brantley, Jolene and Brown, audiences see how their isolation has sadly impacted various individuals whose futures seem unpromising.
With so much going for them, George and Lennie’s positive connection leads to moments of joy for the workers.
Sidney and Mongiardo-Cooper bring a timeless brotherly relationship to life. Their interactions with each other can change from humorously tense to poignant in an instant.
Despite the optimism they share, plenty of problems exist, especially whenever Curley jealously looks for his bride.
Since Bruce doesn’t overplay Curley’s frequent rage, his threatening presence is relatively easy to take seriously.
Director Richard Baird creates long buildups to inevitably disturbing situations. During several crucial moments, he waits for an uncomfortably long time before allowing violent action to occur.
Baird creates a sense of calm early on, which makes the suspenseful and dramatic scenes more shocking.
His design team come up with imagery that’s visually captivating but not glamorous. Elisa Benzoni’s costumes and Marty Burnett’s set are appropriate for Depression era cattlemen.
In addition to Benzoni and Burnett’s contributions, Matt Novotny’s lighting puts emphasis on the hot sunny days at the ranch, while the harmonica-heavy songs on Aaron Rumley’s audio blend in with the early 20th century atmosphere.
A main reason why Of Mice and Men features an almost overwhelmingly powerful narrative is the spectrum of emotions and forces that exist in the evening. It’s tragic, but optimistic. Gritty, but earnest. Tough, but compassionate.
Through Baird’s skilled craftsmanship, the interpretation at Solana Beach will strike a chord with anyone who enjoys tales about unbreakable bonds. Regardless of how familiar you are with Of Mice and Men, you’ll be deeply affected by the journey that George and Lennie go on together.