Theater review: Seattle Public Theater's tense, poignant staging of the John Steinbeck classic "Of Mice and Men" plays March 19-April 12. Review by Misha Berson.

Theater Review |

By several key measures, John Steinbeck’s theatrical version of his 1937 novel “Of Mice and Men” is a mediocre script.

It rambles. It repeats itself. At times it teeters on the brink of self-parody.

But in a rough-hewn, well-shaded mounting by Russ Banham, for Seattle Public Theater, Steinbeck’s study of Great Depression friendship and loneliness is also frequently and honestly heart-rending.

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In the 1930s, in California fields and pastures, Steinbeck toiled alongside people like the hardscrabble characters in “Of Mice and Men.”

Bright, dominant George (George Mount) and his slow-witted sidekick Lenny (Jim Lapan) are itinerant laborers, scratching out a meager living as hired hands.

It puts our own fortunes into perspective to recall an era when people couldn’t afford to add ketchup to a supper of canned beans. Or when the American Dream for many was so modest: saving up for a few acres, and living “off the fat of the land.”

Shortly into Act 1, you know the odds of these guys realizing their “best laid plans of mice and men” are worse than them flying to the moon. And what little they do have — their loyal bond — is imperiled from the moment they walk into the bunkhouse for their next job.

There’s absurdity in George and Lenny’s lot — in their tattered desires, circular patter and the sheer meaninglessness of their existence to anyone but each other.

In Lapan’s poignant, understated portrayal, the childlike Lenny means no harm but doesn’t know his own strength.

His obtuseness frustrates the sharper George, who threatens, profanely and often, to abandon him. But the pair’s symbiotic dependency is also clear here. Caring for someone weaker gives George constant company, and greater purpose.

Steinbeck meant to conjure the ’30s world of forgotten men so fully, we would smell the redolent odor of a faithful old dog, and the cheap perfume of a flirtatious farm wife. Moreover, he wanted to explore the keen solitude, and wary comradeship, of those set adrift from the larger human family, due to forces beyond their ken.

Men like Slim, beautifully played by John Murray as a sad-eyed mule-team driver with a core of gentle decency. And Marcel Davis’ Crook, an embittered black stable hand further isolated by racism and disability.

Even Hilary Pickles’ trapped, bored, devil-in-a-flowered-dress farm wife, and her rash husband, Curley (Tim Gouran), deserve twinges of empathy. The former’s seductiveness, and latter’s negligence and jealousy, trigger the story’s inevitably tragic denouement.

Banham’s cast sustains a subdued integrity, while mining the play’s jots of humor and rising tensions. (A scene involving Brad Harrington’s forlorn old coot Candy and his beloved dog is painfully intense.)

There are few wasted gestures among the ensemble, which also includes Ben Harris, Gavin Cummins and Keith Dahlgren.

In fact, the only misstep is some irritating music — vocal moans with flute, when guitar strums or harmonica wheezes would ring truer.

Misha Berson: