Samuel Beckett has nothing on John Steinbeck.
In their production of Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s novella that he actually intended to be easily adapted for the stage, Arizona Theatre Company brings us a heartfelt vision of the hard-scrabble history of America in the first third of the 20th century. It was a time of devastation of land and community and humanity brought on by the financial collapse of the Great Depression followed by the Dust Bowl, which made refugees of so many in their own country. It doesn’t take a great leap, especially after another world war, to wonder at the manifestation of a mid-century vision of no-frills existentialism that Beckett delivers in Waiting for Godot. Intentional or not, the stories evoke many of the same responses, particularly the heartbreak of unwavering but unfulfilled hope and the painful solitude in which we, although longing for company, are inevitably forced to retreat.
This Steinbeck story is often the first we know of his work, since it is taught in middle school, and his construction is indeed a textbook example of classic storytelling. One can count the times that careful foreshadowing is planted, and the skill of weaving setting, characters and action to a climactic end is easy to spot. Then, of course, there’s the friendship—odd but necessary—of George and Lenny, and we even as youngsters, maybe because we are youngsters, get that too. As we watch it revealed here and now, in ATC’s expert hands, we are made uncomfortably aware of its timeliness as we deal now with the aftermath of the Great Recession and the firm feet of the uber-wealthy planted on the necks of the poor—those who bully them into thinking that illusive American dream belongs to them as well.
The greater timeliness, the eternal kind, is played out by two men, bound by necessity. George Miller (Jonathan Wainwright), a scrawny but tough ranch hand/laborer, and Lenny Small (Scott Greer), large and strong and barely half-witted are on the move, looking for work. Lenny’s innocent longing for things soft to the touch have gotten them in trouble with their last job, and likely other jobs before, because Lenny touched a soft but dangerous thing, a woman. She misunderstood his touch as something more sinister and George, who complains about Lenny’s burdensome presence, yet also recognizes Lenny’s importance to him, has orchestrated an escape.
Lenny begs for George to tell him again and again of their plans. They will save enough to have a little place of their own, “living off the fat of the land,” Lenny loves to repeat, a place where his responsibility will be to take care of the rabbits. In the meantime, they will look for more work, and Lenny won’t say anything, George instructs him. He’s just a strong man who will work hard, and although he is a hulking presence, he will try to remain invisible.
They do find work and settle in with the crew, a small crowd who work for a boss (Jonathan Gillard Daly) with a pitifully insecure son, Curly (Bernard Balbort). He has married, in the words of the hands, “a tart.” Interestingly, in this hierarchy of utility, she is not even given a name. The actress here is Kelly Faulkner. Even the black hand, Crooks (played by the wonderful Chike Johnson), gets a name. We can easily anticipate the possibilities dooming this situation.
ATC, joined by Milwaukee Repertory Theater in this co-production, stakes its claim on our attention immediately as we are shown our seats. The stage is a vast, dusty gray landscape. It holds little promise of any life at all. There are two tall curtain-like panels framing the empty space, the material something akin to burlap, but altered to produce a threadbare effect. It hints at being a spider’s huge web, and when George and Lenny arrive in this space, we know these characters will be entrapped. While sets, lighting and other production elements are often taken in but overlooked, the almost universal excellence of the design work at ATC is a critical part of the whole experience, determining so much more than giving us a place where characters play dress-up for a story to take place. They become a character in their own right. Here the designers are Todd Edward Ivins (set); Rachel Laritz (costumes;) Jesse Klug (lighting;) and Joe Cerqua (sound and original composition.)
The ensemble is capable enough, but it’s definitely George and Lenny’s story. Greer gives us such a tender heart beating in Lenny’s big body, that we love him, pure and simple. His physicalization of Lenny is utterly believable and never becomes gimmicky. Under Mark Clements direction, it is a graceful and wrenching performance. Wainwright’s George is solid, but something seems missing. The text is well-played, but perhaps a deeper subtext would help us feel as deeply hurt for him as we are for Lenny.
This story calls forth numerous issues, not the least of which is that being useful is what makes us worth a damn. This is such an American idea: that we are defined by our jobs. One of the ranch crew, Candy (a fine James Pickering), has lost a hand on the job, but has been allowed to stay on. He has a dog with three legs, old and smelly, some complain, and should be put out of his misery. Candy realizes that perhaps he should be put out of his, but the minute he gets wind of George and Lenny’s plan, he is revived. He has some money he could help with and his one good arm can do some work. He yearns to be a part of that promise, which for George and Lenny began as a daydream and ends in disaster.
Beckett’s Vladimir and Estrogon stay put. Steinbeck’s George and Lenny keep moving, but we all wait and hope, by action or inaction, enduring a universal indifference.