BWW Review: OF MICE AND MEN at Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Kansas City Repertory Theatre's "Of Mice And Men" at the downtown Copaken Stage is an excellent rendering of the classic 1937 work.

BWW Review: OF MICE AND MEN at Kansas City Repertory Theatre

"Of Mice and Men" transports us to Steinbeck's world on the Monterey Peninsula of California during the Great Depression prior to World War II. John Steinbeck's world had yet to experience the wealth boom at Carmel By The Sea or the magnificent homes on the "17 Mile Drive" between Carmel and Monterey. It was (and still is) mainly an agricultural breadbasket area.

At the Depression's height, nearly fifteen million Americans (mostly men) or 25 percent of the workforce are jobless. In California, men wander; laboring in fields abundant with crops year round. Mechanization has yet to take hold. Mules pull plows and wagons. Thousands work in brutal conditions for little money, a roof, and food in their bellies.

As the play opens, two of these men approach a ranch in Soledad California. They are George Milton (Jake Walker) and Lennie Small (Rusty Sneary). George is a bright if uneducated man. Lennie is a giant, but agonizingly slow. Lennie is well meaning, but unable to reconcile his unnatural strength and his gentle nature. They are the next thing to brothers.

BWW Review: OF MICE AND MEN at Kansas City Repertory Theatre

As an orphaned boy, Lennie's Aunt Claire takes in George. On her deathbed, George promises Claire that he will look after Lennie. Unfortunately, trouble seems to stalk their steps. They wander from job to job and dream of a place of their own.

George and Lennie have secured new employment at Soledad after an incident. Lennie was attracted to the red color of a dress worn by a towns-woman. His intent is innocent, but they both panic and an alarm is raised. Lennie is accused of attempted rape. George and Lennie flee a threatened hangman's noose.

Lennie likes soft things. He carries a dead mouse in his pocket. George cannot make Lennie understand that handling the dead creature will make him ill. A similar incident occurs later in the play with a dead puppy that George has arranged for in place of the discarded mouse. George realizes that his life would be simpler sans Lennie, but he does not have it in him to let his friend fend for himself.

BWW Review: OF MICE AND MEN at Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Few resources for dealing with mentally challenged people like Lennie exist. The Soledad ranch is not bad as these businesses go. After initial confusion, the two settle in.

The new job is at a corporate ranch. Referred to only as "Boss" the headman is played by David Fritts. "Boss" lives in the big house with his perpetually angry, son Curley (Kyle Thomas Dyck) and Curley's attractive, young, red-haired wife played by Molly Denninghoff.

Candy (Robert Elliott) is a kindly older ranch-hand we meet with his aging dog. He has lost a hand in a (still) relatively common farm accident. Candy has been allowed to stay on the property in exchange for the limited work he can still perform.

BWW Review: OF MICE AND MEN at Kansas City Repertory TheatreThe master of the farm animals is a bright man named Slim (Brian Paulette), a muleskinner. The one black worker, Crooks (L. Roi Hawkins), has been exiled from the bunkhouse to a small room in the barn adjacent to the manure pile because of the color of his skin.

These characters have their own issues. Curley provokes altercations constantly. His wife experiences loneliness and isolation. Crooks feels excluded even from this rough life. Candy fears getting old and being discarded.

Lennie accidently snaps Curley's wife's neck. The ranch hands realize Lennie is the likely culprit and mount a manhunt. George understands Lennie will be executed or caged for the rest of his life. George's next decision shapes his friend's future forever.

The characters are nuanced and individual in every aspect. Special consideration should go to Rusty Sneary and Jake Walker as Lennie and George respectively. This cast sucks you into the story.

BWW Review: OF MICE AND MEN at Kansas City Repertory TheatreFragmented sets on limited stage area are more than professionally executed by Jack McGaw. A well designed lighting scheme by Jeffrey Cady and music by Kevin O'Donnell add to the overall impression.

I had the opportunity to chat with Director Jason Chanos before seeing the production. Chanos has allowed his technical team and cast the space to layer their contributions. He directs with a light hand that does the performance much credit. See the BWW interview with Chanos also on this site.

"Of Mice And Men" continues as the Copaken Stage inside the H&R Block building downtown through November 17. Tickets are available at www.kcrep.org, or by telephone at 816-235-2700. I can't promise you a fun evening, but you will suspend your disbelieve and achieve an emotional reaction to John Steinbeck's world.

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From This Author Alan Portner

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