BWW Review: OF MICE AND MEN at Omaha Community Playhouse is Heart-Ripping Brilliance
There are some stories you never forget. You cannot forget because they are seared into your memory like a brand. One of those is John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Omaha Community Playhouse has brought that story of loneliness, love, and hope to life with a brilliance you won't want to miss.
Open to the sight of two dusty migrant workers, George (Josh Peyton) and Lennie (Tony Schik), pausing along the road. Lennie carries a dead mouse in his pocket. It had been alive when big soft-hearted and equally soft-minded Lennie put it there, but the mouse is so tiny, that it "got killed" when he pet it too hard. George, the practical one, tosses the mouse and tells his companion that life would be so much easier without him. But as Lennie tells him, "I got you to look after me and you got me to look after you."
So goes the story of an unlikely friendship that will wring emotions out of you whether you want it to or not. Steinbeck created a timeless masterpiece. Things may be different now; this was life back then. The story cannot be edited to make it more politically acceptable today. The racist rejection of the black stable buck Crooks (Donte Plunkett), the misogynist attitudes toward Curley's Wife (Mallory Vallier), the humiliation of simple-minded Lennie cannot be altered to make it more palatable without losing the very heart of the story.
There is a deep aching loneliness throughout the play. As Slim (Nick Zadina) questions George's willingness to be saddled with the burden of Lennie, George recognizes his need for his friend in a symbiotic relationship. Curley's Wife longs to talk to another person. Crooks longs to be included. The longing is palpable. The actors enable us to feel it. We recognize truth in Crooks' words, "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got nobody. Don't make no difference who the guy is, long's he's with you."
John Steinbeck, one of America's most respected writers and my favorite of all time, wrote this novella in 1937 during the Great Depression. Steinbeck based his characters on the migrant workers he came across. The title comes the Robert Burns poem, To a Mouse, which reads, "The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry." In George's and Lennie's case, this is apropos. The companions share a dream of buying a parcel of land they can call their own, where they can raise alfalfa to feed their rabbits, and have the freedom to go to the circus if it's in town whenever they darn well want. But their schemes go awry and their dreams evaporate.
This play could be enacted on a superficial level. But it wouldn't be the same. The meat of the story is in the little details: a facial expression, a gesture, the hesitation of a remark. It must be finely tuned. Director Ablan Roblin has done this with his superlative cast. Every person is perfection. I may be overstepping (but I don't think so) in saying they are as good as any I've seen in New York. Everything works: Their appearances. Their speech. Their mannerisms. Their relationships. They are all exactly what I've envisioned when I've read this book. I can look at one of them and know who they are supposed to be. This was a remarkable job of putting the right people into the right roles and leading them with expert direction.
Tony Schik as Lennie clutches your heart. His childlike responses, incessant giggles, and slumped shoulders bely the difficulty of this role. He could easily become a caricature, but Schik keeps it real. He makes Lennie believable. He makes him lovable. You can see why George vacillates between impatience and tolerance with this big child. Lennie is needy. He is frustrating. He requires constant supervision. But his heart is so open and kind. George needs Lennie to keep his own pragmatism in balance.
Josh Peyton's George is exceptional. George is singleminded, yet torn, and Peyton has mastered the character effortlessly. His gestures are sometimes unexpectedly hilarious, although he's got no time for nonsense or frivolous activities that waste time and money. But there's the other side of George that Peyton reveals through slight, meaningful expressions. He displays a gamut of emotions that culminate in an especially poignant ending.
Candy (Dennis Collins) fears losing his usefulness with his advancing age and the loss of his hand. Collins beautifully reveals his fears through his attachment to his blind old dog. When Carlson (Michael Leamen) tells Candy "If you was to take him out and shoot him right in the back of the head...why he'd never know what hit him," Candy's pain is evident in Collins' fetal position on his bunk. We recognize Carlson's selfish mercy as Leamen leads the old dog off.
Steinbeck's foreshadowing is brilliance.
Steve Catron is the epitome of a furious mess as Curley, the boss' son. He is mean to the marrow. The glove he wears on his left hand may enclose the only soft part of his being. He doesn't even truly love his pretty wife (Mallory Vallier). He can't give her the companionship she needs because of his need to be jealous. Vallier becomes more than a nameless character Steinbeck used as a plot device. She reveals a desperate loneliness and despair in her vaporizing dreams of being in the pictures and wearing nice clothes. Her portrayal of Curley's Wife is more soft puppy than tart with "the eye" and overpowering perfume that betrays her presence.
Donte' Plunkett skillfully transitions from angry man who has been excluded from the bunkhouse to grudging host to Lennie, Candy and George. He isn't welcome in their room, but they are welcomed to his. Books have been his companion, and although they cannot substitute for human interaction, it is apparent that he's developed an emotional intelligence where he recognizes the needs of others.
Nick Zadina is the stolid Slim who quietly supports George, and gives puppies to the hurting Candy and Lennie. He doesn't understand why George and Lennie "string along" together and yet he is the person most likely to be there for others.
Don Keelan-White as the Boss and Benjamin Battafarano as Whit have fully developed their individual personalities, leaving no one character as stage filler. The entire cast is superb.
Every bit of the rustic set that Jim Othuse has created has function. Even the brush by the creek has a purpose in the story. Simple movements of set pieces transform the bunkhouse to Crooks' room to the barn where Lennie pets his pup amid the hay bales provided by props master Darin Kuehler. John Gibilisco's sound design which includes nature sounds of owls and animals is heightened by soothing original music composed by Tim Vallier.
Of Mice and Men is a masterpiece. OCP's stage version is also a masterpiece. I agree with another reviewer who writes that this could be the best play of the year. I don't know how I could possibly love it more. I've already bought tickets to see it again. Heart-ripping or not, sometimes it takes a little sanding in order to see the brilliance.
Photo Credit: Robertson Photography (from left to right: Donte' Plunkett, Josh Peyton, Dennis Collins, Tony Schik)