BWW Reviews: Travis Brazil's production of OF MICE AND MEN Brings Searing Drama to the Boiler Room

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Since its publication in 1937, John Steinbeck's novella Of Mice and Men has inspired artists-there have been multiple film treatments, a Carlisle Floyd opera, ballets and stage productions based upon the tragic tale of migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small-and it is now given a superb production at Boiler Room Theatre featuring stunning performances from the entire cast  of actors under the confident and focused direction of Travis Brazil, who makes his area directing debut with this electrifying rendition of the timeless tale.

Set in Depression-era California, Steinbeck's involving tale of George and Lennie remains as potent and as moving as it has ever been with the memorable characters brought to life by actors Ross Bolen (as George) and John Mauldin (Lennie), whose committed performances are stunning in their honesty and bravery, bringing authenticity and believability to their finely etched evocations of the lifelong friends whose union is shattered in one searing, altogether stunning moment. Steinbeck's story focuses on the lonely, oftentimes solitary, lives of the men who travel from one ranch job to the next, always in search of something more, something different, something tangible to feed their need of belonging.

Touching upon the same themes that would figure significantly in Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath (which follows the trek to the verdant farmlands of California by those Americans displaced by the Dust Bowl, which drove home the economic inequities of the Great Depression even further), the author drew upon his own personal experience as an itinerant farmworker and ranch hand to create the indelible image of the hard-working American struggling to maintain a sense of dignity while eking out the merest of existences in a world determined to sap them of all hope and ambition.

Under Brazil's direction, George and Lennie's simple and universal shared dream of having a place to call their own-to somehow find an inkling of self-worth and self-determination that will render their lives somehow more meaningful-is made all the more palpable by the vivid storytelling that allows audience members to suspend all disbelief in order to feel more deeply the horrific circumstances that conspire to dash the hopes and dreams that seem so tantalizingly within reach.

Thanks to Brazil's vision for the piece-and his impressive pacing of the drama, which ebbs and flows naturally, eschewing theatrical artifice as it does-and the exquisite and pitch-perfect scenic and lighting design by Corbin Green (which transforms the intimate environs of the Boiler Room Theatre into a dusty California ranch), the setting for the story seems immediate, the sound design by Jamey Green and David Warfle making the transformation to Depression Era California more deeply felt and more oppressive. Corbin Green's detailed setting and the imaginative way in which the scenery changes along the way, thus making that postage-stamp size stage seem huge and expansive, is elevated from a mere period piece (or the staged realization of a high school literature assignment) with the sounds of nature and a musical score that provides an auditory experience for theater-goers who find themselves mesmerized by the performances playing out onstage before them.

Add to those impressive physical trappings the fully realized performances of the ten-person ensemble and you have a nonpareil theatrical experience that will provoke thought and personal introspection of the bleakness of the lives portrayed onstage. If you don't leave the theater feeling even a modicum of self-consciousness at your own life's bounty you are perhaps unfeeling, your heart unreachable. In fact, the play's final scene is so incredibly stark and so completely shattering that it is likely to surprise you with its emotional impact.

Before that moment, however, Steinbeck's involving tale is told in a mostly fluid manner and with conviction by the cast (although the decision to have a cast member take to the stage at curtain to read from the novella, to provide the requisite literary introduction, is heavy-handed and stagey-those first expressive words would have better been put to use in a voice-over-but instead Brazil strikes the production's only off-note). Rising to the challenge presented by the time-honored script-and the inherent dangers of recreating such a seminal literary work that is almost universally known-they succeed admirably. Of Mice and Men, although certainly an American literary masterpiece, is much more down-to-earth than that lofty moniker would suggest: It's a story of real people facing real life head-on and being, for the most part, beaten down by it. That defeatist sense of pessimism permeates the atmosphere, making the smallest of hopeful moments more deeply felt and appreciated. The contrast of hope and despair is achingly apparent throughout the play's two-and-one-half hours.

Bolen's George is rather taciturn and pragmatic, although it is his tale of a life that might be attained through hard work and determination that propels him forward. Bolen's richly hued portrayal is underscored by a certain world weariness that suits his character perfectly and his obvious affection for Lennie seems very real.

Mauldin's performance of Lennie is beautifully drawn as he portrays the lumbering manchild with a guileless mien, easily skirting stereotype-or taking the easy way out-by presenting Lennie as something more than a simpleton, yet something less than a fully sentient being. His performance is enormously affecting, his delivery of each of Lennie's lines underscored by pathos and deeper meaning.

Among the supporting players, Phil Brady delivers yet another effective performance as Candy, the aging ranch hand whose beloved 17-year-old dog is callously put down, presaging what is to come during the drama's stunning denouement. Corey Caldwell adds to his own burgeoning resume with his laudable portrayal of muleskinner Slim, while Dan McGeachy and Bryce Conner provide their own strongly felt performances as Carlson and Whit, the other two bunkhouse habitués.

Joel Diggs, in the small but essential role of Crooks, the black ranch hand who is segregated from the whites  and thereby not allowed to bunk with them–the distasteful display of racism and bigotry showing that even in the worst of times, the haves must lord it over the have-nots. Diggs plays the character with his expected elan and focus; even in darkness, while moving set pieces, Diggs remains resolutely in character.

Dan Zeigler is quietly effective as The Boss, evincing a despotic hold over all those who toil on the ranch, while Zack McCann plays his son Curly (the former lightweight boxer who suffers from a Napoleonic complex that sets the plot's tragic portents in motion) as a blunderbuss, lacking self-control and brandishing a gloved left hand like some down-at-heels royal.

As Curly's wife-she is given no name in Steinbeck's novella because the author didn't want her to be interpreted as an individual; rather, she remains a symbol, a dramatic archetype that ultimately brings the full weight of tragedy upon all the characters-Erica Lee Haines skillfully underplays the role. Sure, she's beautiful and attractive, her physical attributes frightening the men with a barely sheathed sensuality, but somehow Haines manages to retain a certain innocence that makes her dramatic arc in the piece more riveting.

Playing at the Boiler Room Theatre through May 5, Of Mice and Men offers a satisfying counterpoint to the company's usual bill of extraordinary musical theatre offerings. But be forewarned: You should make a reservation now, because if you wait until the closing week, they probably won't be able to shoehorn you into a seat.

Of Mice and Men. By John Steinbeck. Directed by Travis Brazil. Presented by Boiler Room Theatre, Franklin. Through May 5. For details, go to www.boilerroomtheatre.com; for reservations, call the box office at (615) 794-7744.  

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


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