Steinbeck’s genius is in his riveting portrayals of his disparate but fundamentally similar characters.
It’s impossible to leave a production of John Steinbeck’s Depression-era “Of Mice and Men” unmoved by the plight of those itinerant farmworkers whose lives are determined not by their will but by time and nature, requiring backbreaking work and frequent moves.
But I left Director Richard Baird’s production (playing through Nov. 12 at North Coast Repertory Theatre) most struck by the existential loneliness of these men – most of whom travel solo – making a living but never having real roots.
George (Jacob Sidney) and Lennie (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) are exceptions – buddies who live the itinerant life together as ranch hands, going wherever work takes them. George – “the smart one” – does the talking for the pair, and takes care of Lennie, a gentle giant – large physically but mentally challenged and emotionally volatile. Lennie can do more work than two men, but because he is easily frightened and is not aware of his own strength, has a tendency to get into trouble. These two consequently move more often than most.
George loses patience easily with Lennie because his memory is poor. But he at least has a friend to take care of, and something the others don’t: a dream of one day saving enough to buy a place of their own, where Lennie (who, in his childlike innocence, likes to pet soft things) looks forward to owning (and petting) rabbits.
They fled the trouble Lennie got into in Weed and have made it to the Salinas Valley to start again. Their fellow ranch hands, an assortment of solitary misfits, are bemused that these two come as a set, and fascinated by (not to mention suspicious and a little jealous of) their dream of buying a place of their own.
The Boss (Ted Barton) is brusque but reasonable enough, as long as his workers do what they’re told, but his rules are law and had better be obeyed.
Sidney and Mongiardo-Cooper are excellent as George and Lennie, and the rest of the cast is equally fine. Steinbeck’s genius is in his riveting portrayals of all these disparate but fundamentally similar characters.
My favorite is John Greenleaf’s Candy, a kindly aging farmhand with an old dog for company, who wants out of his peripatetic life so much that he offers the cash he’s saved over the years for a stake in George and Lennie’s plans for a place of their own.
Candy has another problem: an aged, blind and “useless” dog (according to Max Macke’s trigger-happy Carlson). Candy’s heartbreak is almost palpable as he faces the necessity of having his longtime canine companion put down.
The Boss’ son Curley (Wallace Bruce) is not just short-tempered, but on a hair trigger, at least partly because he is suspicious of what his unnamed wife (Sierra Jolene) is up to, and constantly checking up on her whereabouts and company. Jolene has an unusual way of talking – both seductive and innocent – but her flirting doesn’t mask an underlying loneliness that mirrors the men’s.
Slim (J. Stephen Brantley), the good-hearted mule driver, rabble-rouser Whit (Justin Lang), both solid workers and reasonable men – and Crooks (Laurence Brown), the sole African American hand (who is housed in the stable by himself) add depth and social commentary to the story.
Marty Burnett’s weathered-looking set opens to an expansive field that almost makes you feel the sun as well as the dust. Matt Novotny’s lighting also provides for wonderfully evocative silhouettes with George and Lennie.
Elisa Benzoni's sweat-stained costumes add texture.
Steinbeck was a California boy who knew the plight of the American itinerant farmworker from experience. It’s remarkable that 80 years after publication, little has changed. Thanks to Baird and his team, this is one of the best productions of this still-relevant show I’ve ever seen.
“Of Mice and Men” plays through November 12, 2017, at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.
Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.
Tickets: (858) 481-1055 or northcoastrep.org