Sunday, June 04, 2006

Opening-night review: *Of Mice and Men* at Interplayers

through June 24

Led by Troy Nickerson’s masterful performance as Lenny, Interplayers is presenting a very good production of John Steinbeck’s American classic, *Of Mice and Men* (through June 24).

Two ranch hands, nearly destitute, one small and one large — they depend on each other, complete each other. The tight-knit duo of George and Lenny encapsulates an admirable kind of mutual dependence. As simple characters with simple desires, George and Lenny are just searching for a better life. But throw in some misunderstandings, some causeless animosity, and Steinbeck’s well-constructed play winds down a path toward visceral tragedy. And done right, with all its anguish and injustice, *Of Mice and Men* should hit us right in the gut.

Wes Deitrick’s production lands most of its punches. The world needs to care for its Lennys, after all, and Nickerson’s performance is extremely engaging. Perhaps encouraged by audiences that prefer their tragedies leavened with a little humor, he plays up the retarded giant’s goofiness at times, almost in music-hall style. But Nickerson is child-like and thoroughly likeable onstage, copying his buddy’s body language early on to let us know that while there isn’t a single original thought rattling around in his noggin, his affection for George is unfeigned and pure. When he listens — so eagerly — to George’s recounting about how it’s gonna be on the homestead of their dreams — all those chickens and horses and rabbits — Nickerson lies prone, his head in the crook of his elbow, cuddling up with his knapsack, all scrunched up with anticipation, his big rump practically wiggling with glee. He’s a human puppy dog, and it’s clear from then on how and why brutish-looking Lenny has such a connection to soft little animals — anything tender, like the dreams and little kindnesses that metastasize into tragedy for him.

His protector in this buddy-drama is played by George Green, who brings a lot of energy to the caretaker role. Green (who is The Inlander’s marketing and promotions manager) does many things well in this role: amusement over Lenny’s childishness; resentment at having such a bonehead to look after; boyish enthusiasm when it seems that the dream just might come through; anguish in the final catastrophe.

But often, the good acting sequences were disjointed, with Deitrick apparently allowing Green to let genuinely affecting emotions arrive unprepared for. An example: In the opening scene, George’s resentment of Lenny comes on quite suddenly. The two hobos are trading stories when — bam! — suddenly George is pounding on Lenny’s chest, angry not only about Lenny’s irresponsible stupidity in the last town, but about how George stupidly has to be responsible for Lenny now and in the next town and forever. Later, when a fellow laborer offers to help George out financially, we need to see the protectiveness emerge gradually. Once Green establishes a mode — joking with Lenny, flaring up into anger — he’s quite effective. But we need to see hints of the protectiveness, of the fun-loving wanderer, all along, and not in sudden and unmotivated outbursts. Green’s performance features several exceptional acting sequences, but they feel like very good strung-together moments.

Nevertheless, this pair works well together. The moment when Green stands behind Nickerson, with George squeezing Lenny’s shoulders, both of them smiling broadly and staring out at their shared vision of an unattainable future, is stirring in just the way it should be. And Green’s anguish in the final scene, juxtaposed with Nickerson’s unknowing, child-like faith, was heart-breaking.

Their supporting cast, however, is uneven: A couple of the ranch hands aren’t menacing, and a couple others rush through speeches without conveying their emotional impact. As Slim, however, Patrick McHenry-Kroetch, wears some commanding boots. In his lanky, measured performance, you can feel the aches deep in Slim’s joints, the grime in his sweat.
Early on, Chasity Kohlman’s tart-wife doesn’t sizzle enough with sex-longing, though her final speech, joining the chorus of Steinbeck characters who are willing to break away and make a better life, has conviction. As Candy, the washed-up ranch hand, Gary Pierce is better at conveying enthusiasm for the dream farm than sadness over a pathetic personal loss.
Dan Heggem’s lighting scheme, meanwhile, ignites an intriguing campfire onstage; costumers Janna Cresswell and Peggy Soden contribute sweat-drenched shirts so filthy that we know this isn’t any dude ranch.

*Of Mice and Men* underlines its symbols and themes, but it’s a story of such basic humanity that it still has visceral impact. This Interplayers production, clearly the best of the theater’s troubled second half of the season, takes more risks than any other Interplayers show all year and, as a tragic play, succeeds admirably.

After all, Lenny wanting to hear about his rabbits is the child inside all of us, yearning for happiness, lingering over the details of our dreams. In our polarized, contentious, time-impoverished culture, Steinbeck’s reminders are welcome. We should avoid being cruel, all of us; take time for little kindnesses, all of us; take responsibility for one another, all of us.
People say such “lessons” are trite. Then how come we haven’t learned them?

Tell us about the rabbits, George, because we all want to hear about our ideals, even when we know we’ll never get them. The gunshots in Steinbeck’s play ricochet well beyond it, puncturing the heart of our American dreams. During the final scene, it’s not just George and Lenny we’re crying for.


For a revised version of this review — including different comments on Wes Deitrick’s direction and George Green’s performance as George Milton — check out the Arts & Culture section in the June 8 Summer Guide issue of *The Pacific Northwest Inlander.*


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