by Hugh Hunter
Stagecrafters is currently running “Of Mice And Men,” directed by Catherine Pappas. John Steinbeck reworked his classic Great Depression era novel into a play, first produced on Broadway in 1937.
On the run from another town, Lennie and George take jobs at a ranch in northern California. There we meet lots of rough cowboys who are also trapped and can only dream of a better life. “Mice” is essentially a parable about the powerlessness of ordinary people.
Joe Forsstrom is formidable as Lennie, a huge man with a mental age of four. He is an endearing teddy bear, but Lennie also has hidden reservoirs of fear, anger and passion. When they are triggered, he cannot control himself.
George has known Lennie since childhood and wants to protect him. Actor Brian Weiser is able to convey that caretaker George feels both affection and weariness in equal measure, and he brings out the poignancy of a relationship that could easily collapse into bathos.
As a metaphor for common life, the ranch is full of all sorts of people. Boss (Michael Tamin Yurcaba) and his churlish son Curley (Patrick Cathcart) are nasty guys. Candy (Robert Toczek) wants escape from his grim life, while ranch hands Slim (Jim Broyles), Carlson (Patrick Martin) and Whit (Bill Amos) are resigned to their lots.
Mae (Jilly Schwab) is Curley’s young wife. Unhappy on the farm, she is a constant sexual presence and dreams of Hollywood. Crooks (Tim Richardson) is a black man who has to live in the barn, but racial insults do not stop him from seeing the desperate unhappiness of others.
Stagecrafters’ shows are strong in production details, but I cannot remember the last time I saw a stage as dramatic as this one, with its background sunset and bales of hay. During scene changes, dark outlines of farm objects loom against the still bright sky, and it feels as if you are watching something from a ghostly past. (Set design and scenic decor, Patricia Masarachia).
The Lenny-George relationship is compelling, while both Lenny and Mae are so loaded with energy you know those guns will eventually go off. As a story “Mice” keeps you wondering what will happen next, but the play also has a lot to say.
Modern American Theater has lost its capacity for metaphor (playwright Tony Kushner notwithstanding). Our theater (and “progressive” politics) is entirely concerned with relationships, especially about “raising our consciousness” over what it feels like to be gay or black or a woman or whatever.
Yet wealth inequality today has reverted to levels not seen since Steinbeck’s Great Depression era. “Of Mice And Men” takes you back to a time when American theater and politics were not oblivious to the larger world of class and power in which all relationships take shape.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Of Mice And Men” will run through Dec 13. Reservations available at 215-247-9913.