By Geary Danihy
It is open to question whether John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is truly a tragedy, at least by classic definition, but there’s no arguing that the Westport Country Playhouse’s production of the 1937 Steinbeck novel, which the author himself turned into a play, is an altogether impressive display of acting, set design, direction and lighting that seamlessly comes together in a fitting tribute to the late Paul Newman, husband of Joanne Woodward, the Playhouse’s artistic director.
The basic story involves two out-of-work laborers wandering the countryside of Depression-era America. George (Brian Hutchison) is beginning to question the wisdom of his shepherding Lennie (Mark Mineart), a hulking, mentally deficient man who has an almost uncontrollable urge to “pet” creatures and, in the process, unintentionally kill them. On the run from a town where Lennie’s urges led to charges of rape, they show up at a ranch where sexual tensions are simmering.
The opening scene, beautifully lit by Robert Wierzel, establishes the bond between the two men and the dream they share of one day finding a place of their own where they can raise livestock and not be at the beck and call of the “bosses.” The dream includes rabbits for Lennie to care for and fondle, a requirement that he constantly reminds George must be met. Deftly and subtly directed by Mark Lamos, the scene is like a pastoral poem, for there is innocence here, not only in Lennie’s simplemindedness but also in George’s grudging concern for the child-like man. Surrounded by nature, safe from a society that Lennie cannot easily function in, the two might as well be in Eden.
Their arrival at the ranch, evoked by stark bunkhouse and barn sets by Michael Yeargan, comes soon after Curly (Rafael Sardina), the owner’s son, has married. His wife (Betsy Morgan) is restless, and it is this restlessness that will eventually be Lennie’s undoing.
The climax is foreshadowed by a tense scene that occurs soon after George and Lennie’s arrival, when Carlson (Tommy Nohilly), one of the workers, begins complaining about the smell of an old dog owned by Candy (Edward Seamon), a crotchety sort who lost a hand while working on the ranch and has been kept on out of sympathy. Arguing that the dog is old and of no use to himself or anyone else, Carlson gets Candy to agree to allow him to take the dog out and shoot him.
With Carlson’s departure, dog in tow, Lamos artfully uses stretches of silence to build the tension amongst the men, a tension conveyed by body language and clipped dialogue that seeks to cover the men’s uneasiness with phatic conversation. Ramos doesn’t rush the scene but allows the audience to squirm along with the men in the bunkhouse until a pistol shot releases the tension.
The production only stumbles once. This occurs late in the second act and involves Ramos’s willingness to “hold” on a moment. The technique works in the opening, pastoral scene and the later “dog” scene, but it is less effective when Ramos allows the production to come essentially to a dead stop so the audience can dwell on the horrific nature of what it has just seen occur on stage. Yes, it is a stark tableau, but what might have been riveting for five or six beats goes on and on until whatever effect was hoped for is lost.
Since this scene comes at a crucial moment in the play, it is a bit of an irritant, but not enough to take away from the production’s overall effect, which is mesmerizing and at moments transcendent, no more so than in its final scene back in the “Eden” of the first act, which has now become, in essence, the land of Monah where at God’s command Abraham brought his son Isaac to sacrifice him at God’s bidding.
The ending is tragic. Whether or not it is also tragedy hinges, I imagine, on your focus. If it is on Lennie, who is incapable of controlling his urges, then it is not, for his “tragic flaw” is imposed on him by nature. He has no choice. However, if your focus is on George and his decision to keep Lennie with him, a decision that is as much caring as self-serving, then a “tragedy” argument might be made.
Either way, Of Mice and Men, as staged by the Playhouse, is a truly moving experience, all the more so since Paul Newman had been scheduled to be the director before illness forced him to bow out.
Of Mice and Men runs through Saturday, Nov. 1. For tickets or more information call 227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.