An American work of fiction that’s become part of the very fiber of our artistic consciousness, John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” has a fairly substantial overfamiliarity barrier to surmount. Even if one hasn’t read the novella or seen one of the film adaptations or a stage production, cultural osmosis ensures that “Tell me about the rabbits, George” is probably a familiar refrain, if only as parody.
Currently being revived on Broadway in a star-studded production that’s underwhelmed some critics, Steinbeck’s tale of a pair of mismatched migrant workers can also be seen now at Eclectic Theater in a staging directed by Kim Deskin that plays it straight and to the point. As well-worn as Steinbeck’s observations about the broken American dream are, they can still be extraordinarily moving, as a number of quietly effective moments in Eclectic’s production proves.
Backed by blues music from Reggie Miles, whose resonator guitar and doleful vocals cast an appropriately downbeat spell, the play stars Michael Andrew Scott as the scheming, scrappy George Milton and Gavin Sakae McLean as his lumbering, mentally disabled companion, Lennie Small.
Archetypal roles like these can be hard to enliven, and there are aspects of both McLean’s and Scott’s work that feel borrowed from a prefab kit — Lennie’s dangerously earnest love of little creatures and George’s half-feigned annoyance at his pal’s single-minded demeanor. But these are still two fundamentally sound performances, and the actors are particularly convincing in their interdependence. Steinbeck never explicates just why George feels so compelled to care for Lennie, but in these two emotionally attuned portrayals, their bond feels essential, not arbitrary.
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In a way, George is almost as childlike as Lennie in his dream of making enough money to own a farm and leave the hobo ranch hand lifestyle behind. The pair’s frequent fantasizing about living off the fat of the land is devastating in its delusion.
That willful self-deception underpins Will Rose’s moving turn as Candy, a one-handed ranch worker who overhears the pair’s plans and sees perhaps his last opportunity to have a fulfilling life by joining them. Tee Dennard brings a bitter dose of reality in his resigned, weary Crooks, a black stablehand whose ostracized state has made him acutely aware of life’s disappointments.
Not every supporting performance syncs with the predominantly melancholy mood, particularly Brad Walker’s sniveling, cartoonish Curley, the ranch owner’s aggressive son, but Eclectic Theater’s “Of Mice and Men” is a worthy production and a testament to the simple emotional power of Steinbeck’s story, bracing despite its ubiquity.
Dusty Somers: firstname.lastname@example.org