Cinnabar Theater’s “Of Mice and Men,” through April 13, 2014
The 1937 New York Times review of the Broadway stage production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” reads “If the story were callously told, the conclusion might be unbearable. But Mr. Steinbeck has told it with both compassion and dexterity…In the bunkhouse of a ranch in CA, the story ensnares rootless lives and expands into dreams of a glorious deliverance. (Brooks Atkinson , original review Nov 24, 1937, NYT, p. 20.) It’s now seventy-seven years later and the play, performed at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater under the tight direction of Sherri Lee Miller, delivers all the potency and magic that it had back in the Great Depression when audiences could personally relate to the bleak life of migrant workers. Most of us read the novella in high school and were under strict pressure to knock out an essay on some aspect of Lennie and George’s relationship. Revisiting the story and its archetypal characters as adults is another experience all together. Miller has pulled together a team of impeccable actors who bring these tragic characters to life and revitalize their struggles. The audience on opening evening was squirming with anticipation and revulsion at the injustice of Lennie’s plight, the imploding of dreams and the ugly, unquestioned racism of the times.
Set in the 1930’s, the play is carefully staged by Joe Elwick to reflect the grit and sparseness of ranch-hand life in Salinas Valley at the time. From the opening scenes at the riverbank, marked by a simple line of rocks along the stage line, to the sturdy simplicity of the handcrafted log cabin bunk house, which serves as a humble home for the workers, to Crook’s isolated room in the hay barn; the set works both as a backdrop and catalyst. And in Cinnabar’s intimate space, it all makes for a near perfect experience. I’d be willing to bet that the Broadway revival opening in April at the Longacre Theatre with James Franco as Lennie has nothing over Cinnabar’s.
The great pleasure in the production comes from watching Samson Hood embody Lennie, who is mentally challenged. It’s not much of a stretch for him physically—he’s a giant of a man with huge hands and a lumbering gate that already speak volumes. But the magic is in his thoroughly convincing facial expressions and the absolute sincerity of his child-like delivery, whether he’s hunched over and trying to hide that he has stroked his little mouse to death, or is excitedly dreaming of raising rabbits and living off the fat of the land or is spilling secrets that he’s been asked to keep quiet about. Kind-hearted and simple Lennie doesn’t understand the power of his own strength or the complexity of the world or the ugliness of human nature and he is completely dependent on George to navigate his course.
As George, Keith Baker, is an intriguing combo of protective caregiver and a go-getter with big dreams. He is gruff and impatient with Lennie one moment and then, after lashing out, he whips back to tender and sentimental. The friendship is exacts a heavy toll on George who must constantly protect and cover up for George as they drift from job to job holding on to their dream.
James Gagarin plays Curley, the ranch-owner’s son with such spite and fury towards everyone that we shudder with revulsion and feel no empathy him when his hand is crushed accidentally by Lennie.
As one-armed Candy, Steinbeck’s for foil the aged and abandoned, Clark Miller manages to convincingly convey the pain of isolation and physical frailty. The scene involving the shooting of his ancient and beloved dog will tug at your conscious. It’s made all the more dramatic by the using a real dog who is old but not so decrepit as to be near death. The idea of shooting it to put it out of its misery seems wrong and is one of the play’s more dramatic moments, beautifully navigated by Clark Miller and by Anthony Abaté who plays callous Carlson with bone-chilling precision.
After the loss of his dog, Candy has nothing to live for but after he overhears George and Lennie discussing the farm, he offers them his life savings (some $250) to go in on the farm and he has something to fix his dreams on. Steinbeck’s play is full of dreaming and, in contrast, the harsh reality of the life of itinerant workers. The men poor their blood and sweat into keeping up the owner’s ranch for a minimal wage and three daily meals—work may keep a man honest but the capitalist system is stacked against the worker who toils his entire life and never advances.
As Crooks, the black stable hand who is forced to live in the barn, Dorian Lockett is cagey, defensive and so disempowered that he is wary of everyone. The repeated use of the word “nigger” predictably drew cringes from the Cinnabar audience who had empathy for Crooks’ plight and recognized his insightfulness and warmth once he let his guard down and began to dream of a place, a piece of land, where he too could be free.
Ilana Niernberger, Curly’s vulgar wife does a marvelous job of guiding the audience through a love-hate relationship with her. At first, she appears to be a tart who flirts shamelessly with the workers and is interested in stepping out on her new husband Curly. In the barn, alone with the men, we see her vulnerability and that she is lonely and craves emotional attachment and conversation. Her flirtatious nature ushers in the play’s tragic climax. When she coaxes Lennie to stroke her hair, she finally and fatally understands that he is not able to gauge the power in his touch. Her screams for help only worsen things. As Lennie covers her mouth and tells her to be quiet, he breaks her neck.
The play’s emotional trajectory goes from hope in the American Dream to the shattering of that hope. Cinnabar has taken this great classic and elegantly brought it to life.
Run-time: Two hours and 20 min, including one intermission
Creative Team: Of Mice and Men stars Keith Baker and Samson Hood as the famous friends, George and Lennie. The ensemble of talented actors also features Anthony Abaté (Carlson), James Gagarin (Curley), Tim Kniffin (Slim), Dorian Lockett (Crooks), Clark Miller (Candy), Ilana Niernberger (Curley’s wife), Kevin Singer (Whit), and Barton Smith (The Boss). Directed by Sheri Lee Miller.
Design Team: Joe Elwick (scenery), Pat Fitzgerald (costumes), Wayne Hovey (lights), Jim Peterson (sound). This production is generously underwritten by Sandra O’Brien and Elly Lichenstein.
Details: Of Mice and Men has been extended an additional week through April 13, 2014, at Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma, CA 94952. Performances: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $15 for ages 21 and under; $25 for adults. Purchase tickets online here or call Cinnabar’s Box Office at 707 763-8920 between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM on weekdays. Tickets may also be available at the door 15 minutes prior to each performance, but pre-purchase is recommended as Cinnabar shows tend to sell out! For more information about Cinnabar Theater — www.cinnabartheater.org .
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