Director Paul Lazarus and a wonderful cast have recaptured the shattering tragic power and deeply moving humanity that John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" must have had when it first appeared as a novella, and then later as a play, in 1937. That they have done so without resorting to anything but the most natural theatrical devices and the most superbly authentic acting makes their accomplishment all the more remarkable.
Lazarus has reset the play from 1937 to 1942, when the Bracero Treaty between the U.S. and Mexico gave migrant workers a measure of standing and even dignity. Of course, the political issues that moved Steinbeck originally were the plight of farmers forced by the Midwest Dust Bowl to find work in California, but the play is only marginally about politics. What Steinbeck cared about was the plight of men and women who are forced, either by pragmatism or perception, to remain strangers from each other as they struggle to survive in a hostile social environment.
Also transcending political issues, the transformation of most of the characters into Latinos allows the actors room for the kind of quasi-improvisational flexibility that means their performances are likely to be not only real but also fresh for each performance. It also symbolizes the potential of a society in which multilingual speakers, as they now do, symbolize the best hope for a proud and egalitarian future.
The cast is a miracle of perfection in which each actor, given Steinbeck's generous distribution of dialogue, has at least one small moment to stand out, and each captures the vast reservoirs of humanity that Steinbeck understands is the most important of all our rights and qualities.
Lazarus wisely avoids overemphasizing Lennie's freakish nature and presents Lennie's stunted mental development as more a circumstance of nature than a clinical collection of symptoms for a condition like autisim. Presenting Lennie with impressive purpose and poise, Al Espinosa's decision to accentuate Lennie's confused worldview with his childish use of spastic finger motions becomes less pronounced, and less distracting, as the play wears on. In fact, as Lennie becomes more trusting, he uses his fingers with almost heartbreaking eloquence.
David Norona's George is an outstanding performance that carries the weight of the story as eloquently as he carries the weight of Lennie's star-crossed fate, and he shares with Alex Mendoza's Slim a rare ability to exist both in and above the different worlds they so clearly understand and mourn for but can't change.
Thomas Kopache's Candy and Curtis C.'s Crooks speak magnificently to the isolation of the dispossessed, whether by age or race, while Madison Dunaway conveys the desperation of Curley's wife and how it seeps into and contaminates her sexual consciousness as a young, vital woman.
Only the uncredited dog departs from reality, being neither decrepit nor flea-bitten as he is supposed to be.
The sets are simply and beautifully stylized, idyllic as they might be in Lennie's childish imagination, and the music is used sparingly but to great effect. The costumes are ideal.
Venue: Pasadena Playhouse (Through June 8)
Cast: David Norona, Al Espinosa, Thomas Kopache, Madison Dunaway, Alex Mendoza.
Playwright: John Steinbeck.
Director: Paul Lazarus.
Scenic designer: D. Martyn Bookwalter.
Costume designer: Rita Salazar-Ashford.