Sunday, March 27, 2011

Play: Telling You About the Rabbits

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, directed by Jerry Manning

If you think I'm going to diss John Steinbeck, you're crazy.

OK, everyone bounced off this in High School, and if you didn't, it is one more sad testament regarding the cultural  state of affairs of these later days. But even if you didn't, you've watching a bajillion Warner Brothers cartoons where Mel Blanc was riffing on Lon Chaney Jr.'s performance in the 1939 Movie. (Say it with me now and get it all out of your system "I will hug him and I will pet him and I will call him George"). The original novella was written with a play in mind, and its first theatrical performance was written by Steinbeck. Here's the bare-bones plot you should have been paying attention to earlier:

George and Lennie are itinerant ranch-hands looking for work in 30's California. George is the smart one with large dreams. Lennie is mentally disabled, with more strength than mind, and loves to hear about the dreams, demanding George tell about their plans to get a farm with 10 acres and crops and rabbits, again and again. They arrive at a farm in Soledad owned by the bank but run by the Boss. They try to fit in, they try to leave and get their lives together, but in the end Lennie's mindless strength and unchecked emotions undoes them both and George has to take matters into his own hands.

Its a tragedy of the classical sort, where men carry with them the seeds of their own destruction. I talk about a lot of plays that have a positive or redemptive note, that leaves the audience feeling better about their world. This isn't one of them. It is one of those scary plays - theatre with sharp teeth.

What it does have is powerful emotion, even as you know what's coming (we spoke with a woman at the intermission who remembered seeing the movie as a young girl but could not remember the ending - I didn't want to break the news to her). And you do know what's coming. Chekov may have had his gun, but Steinbeck brings an entire arsenal, and everything in the front half of the play echoes developments in the second. Foreshadowing is the order of the day.

The director in his notes puts forth that this is an ensemble, that all the characters have import. I disagree Most of them exist to chorus, contrast, or challenge George and Lennie. The ranch at Soledad is a wounded land of broken men, where everyone is shattered physically (the broke-backed stabler, the one-handed old swamper) or emotionally (the isolated wife, the paranoid husband). They are ruined people with nowhere to go, no real exit.

The Rep presentation is deeply traditional, a straightforward unspooling of the facts of the matter, and as a result it feels like an old play. The audience is not addressed, no stage directions are read out loud, and in the single scene change (shifting from the prologue introing Lennie and George to the ranch itself), the cast brings on the rest of the props to create the illusion of industry. The set captures the merciless openness of agricultural California - it overwhelms the people playing out their lives beneath its blue dome. If you want to offer exhibit A for traditional theatre, this would be a good one.

The performances feel similarly contained. Rep regular Charles Leggett is brilliant as Lennie, but you can hear Lon Chaney Jr rolling through his presentation of the ungentle giant,a thunderstorm waiting to happen.Troy Fishnaller is quickwitted and dexterous as George, a character deeply aware that his affect on the rest of the world extends only as far as the sound of his voice. He is with Lennie because he would be alone otherwise.

And that for me is the heart of the story. It is all about a loneliness that dogs your steps and haunts your dreams. You don't see George's dream existing without Lennie there. And that theme is present everywhere, but does not call itself out. Its issues are both deeply personal and universal. It is not a feel-good presentation, and does not sugar-coat what it thinks theatre should be. It is worth seeing.

More later,