By Manning Harris
Serenbe Playhouse is currently running John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men,” directed by Jenny Lord. The play runs through June 26, in an outdoor setting in front of a century-old barn, a perfect “site specific” setting. Ms. Lord is on loan to Serenbe from the Juillard School in New York. Serenbe Artistic Director Brian Clowdus, happily, has excellent connections.
You’ve probably experienced this work as required reading in high school, or perhaps you’ve been fortunate enough to see a live production or an excellent film version (the latest was the 1992 film with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich).
It is my pleasure to tell you that Serenbe Playhouse is producing an overpowering production with a superb cast in intimate, real-life surroundings, and I never expect to see a better “Of Mice and Men.”
When George and Lennie break camp under an old tree before going into Soledad to get jobs (they are migrant farm workers in California in the Great Depression) or when the ranch hands argue, plan, or dream in the bunkhouse or in the barn, it becomes more than great theatre; it’s as though you’re eavesdropping on live human beings just a few feet from you.
This is a story of hard times, aching loneliness, desperate dreams, and love. You may know of George (Daniel Parvis) and Lennie (Blake Burgess): George, the resourceful, uneducated but smart worker who travels around with Lennie, a gentle giant of a man with great physical strength but is mentally deficient. We’re not sure why; George says he was kicked in the head by a horse, but that may be just a story.
But they look after each other (“I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, says Lennie). In this companionship lies their treasure. Crooks (Daviorr Snipes, in an excellent performance), the stable-hand, says “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is as long as he’s with you.” Every other character in the play, except George and Lennie, is “sentenced to solitary confinement inside his own skin” as Tennessee Williams said, in one degree or another.
You see, the times are hard; people don’t trust one another very much; friendship of any kind is precious and hard to come by.
George and Lennie have a dream: They will one day own their own place and “live off the fat of the land.” Lennie loves to hear George tell “how it’s gonna be”; and Lennie will tend the rabbits. He likes to pet soft things.
But things fall apart, as W.B. Yeats said. When the two arrive at the ranch, the boss (Brad Brinkley) is already angry because they are late. Slim (Bryan Brendle), the main driver of the mule team is a “jerkline skinner” and a natural leader. He seems to have an intuitive understanding of things; he likes George and has an instant comprehension and approval of his and Lennie’s relationship. Slim is played with ease and assurance by Mr. Brendle; it’s a pitch perfect performance.
Candy (Michael Rudko) is an elderly man with a crippled old dog whom Carlson (Jonathan Horne) urges Candy to destroy. Candy cannot, but Carlson is determined. Mr. Rudko and Mr. Horne give flawless performances.
The boss’s son is Curley (Andy Terwilliger), who has a permanent chip on his shoulder because he’s short and has an attractive, lonely wife (Nicole Carpenter) who seems to flirt with the other men, who mainly view her with disdain. But in reality she and Crooks are probably the loneliest people at the ranch. Mr. Terwilliger and Ms. Carpenter are both fine, as is Erik Poger Abrahamsen as Whit.
What happens next is difficult to talk about (and I’m no spoiler) and as disturbing and inevitable as a Greek tragedy. I must say that Mr. Parvis’ performance as George is agile, tough, tender, and heartbreaking. Mr. Burgess captures Lennie’s open-hearted emotionality and childlike ways beautifully; his Lennie is a bit more verbally fluent than one expects. It’s an unusual choice and initially caught me off guard. But once you relax into it, it works. It’s simply another acting (and directing) choice. Big kudos to Ms. Lord for her seamless, invisible direction.
The excellence of the acting, the naturalistic outdoor setting, the proximity of the audience to the actors, Steinbeck’s taut, succinct script—these are things I dream of experiencing but seldom do.
This production, in my view, is an almost perfect work of art. I am grateful I could be a part of it; I am moved just writing about it. I hope you get to see it, too. It’s unforgettable.
For tickets and information, visit serenbeplayhouse.com.