Of Mice and Men

Theater Review – Of Mice and Men at Bridge Players Theater Company

Finally an American has produced a drama on par with Shakespeare. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men animated the concepts of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations in a way that made them distinctly American and, yet, universal. He interwove the freedom to “live off the fatta’ the land” with the quest for love and companionship. At the same time he explored the individual’s place in a society he’s no longer of value to. The cast and crew at the Bridge Players Theater in Burlington, NJ turned in performances commensurate with such high-minded concepts.

I admire director Gabrielle Affleck’s choice of projects. Several months ago I enjoyed watching her lead a production of Kimberly Akimbo; a challenging play written by Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist David Lindsey-Abaire. For her follow-up endeavor, Ms. Affleck decided to “up her game”, if you will, and selected another story with difficult and controversial material. This time a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who also received the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote the script. This show also featured a dog (Ladybird “Lady” Ezell) in the live show. One can only respect this artist’s courage.

I found the interplay between Breen Rourke (as George) and Paul Sollimo (as Lenny) outstanding. A year-and-a-half ago I watched Mr. Rourke play Shelly “The Machine” Levine in Glengarrry, Glen Ross. I still recall the masterful way he voiced the role in a shrill, whinny voice. It made me wonder how he’d play a drifter from 1930s California. His authentic delivery of George’s diction and locution surprised me. As the show continued I realized I shouldn’t have been. He possesses superb acting abilities. He showed his character’s descent from rugged idealism to disillusionment very steadily and believably.

I also have to give Mr. Rourke credit for his performance in the opening scene. The playwright assigned most of the dialog to his character. At times I thought the scene a soliloquy. He impressed me for remembering all the words, let alone for the genuine manner he delivered them.

I found the casting of Paul Sollimo in the role of Lenny as somewhat ironic. The dialog described the character as “dumb”. Mr. Sollimo is a genius in the field of acting. I’ve watched him play several “sophisticated “characters extremely well over the years. I wondered what he would bring to the role of Lenny. It allowed him to exhibit his craft at its pinnacle. Mr. Sollimo brilliantly transformed himself into the character. He crawled around on the floor, giggled childishly and spoke like someone slow of mind. He pronounced words in the identical way I imagined the character would have when I read the novel. This outstanding performance led me to sympathize with Lenny more than I’d expected to.

I’ve always believed that no amount of histrionic prowess can rescue bad script writing. Rachel Comenzo’s performance of “Curley’s wife” proved me wrong. I’ve always believed, to put this as politely as I can, Mr. Steinbeck’s development of “Curley’s wife” in the novel was the worst character portrayal in the history of the English language. Seriously: Steinbeck couldn’t have even given her a name? (See my earlier review of the novel version of Of Mice and Men.) I thought the character description in the play version a bit better. Curley’s wife seemed misunderstood and longed to seek a better life. The author still failed to fully develop it.

Ms. Comenzo deserves immense credit for animating such a poorly written character so well. In her final scene with Lenny, she delivered an emotional exposition of Curley’s wife’s background leading into her desire to escape her unhappy surroundings. Ms. Comenzo’s pining facial expression and soft voice modulation actually made me empathize with the character. That’s difficult for a performer to do with a strong character. I never would’ve thought it possible with a weak one. It shows the immense level of her acting skills that she achieved that with so little assistance from the playwright.

Mr. Rourke, Mr. Sollimo and Ms. Comenzo put on an acting clinic. The rest of the cast delivered great performances, as well. I’d especially note that Greg Northam played a very moving Candy. His gingerly gait and slumped over posture added to my empathy for him. Richard Priest (as Crooks) and Fred Ezell (as Carlson) utilized memorable voices for the roles they played.

I would warn theater goers that some of the dialog contained racial epithets. The playwright had an ulterior motive for including it, however. Later in the show Mr. Steinbeck expressed his animosity towards this sort of racial bigotry. In a moving scene between Crooks (played by Richard Priest) and Lenny, the lone African American character discussed his disdain with the other characters for excluding him simply because of his race. As the original play premiered in 1937, I admired the then progressive view on race relations.

I’d also liked to give a shout out to Jeff Rife. The man did a phenomenal job with the set design. I also give him credit for engineering the set in such a way that made the intricate changes between scenes more manageable for the cast and crew.

The story in Of Mice and Men has become iconic in our culture. Mr. Steinbeck’s tale is a masterpiece of the highest order. It’s still well worthwhile to revisit; especially, when performed by such an outstanding cast and crew. The Bridge Players Theater Company’s presentation brought to mind a line from Henryk Sienkwiewicz’s epic novel Quo Vadis: “I only wish it was worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” The show runs through May 14.

Book Review – Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

I’ve read Of Mice and Men numerous times both for school and pleasure. I decided to read it once more while pretending that I’d never heard the story before. I knew this would be a challenge as the characters of Lennie and George have become ingrained into American popular culture. In spite of the challenges, I managed to get through Steinbeck’s classic with an open mind. To my surprise I liked the book much more than I ever did.

I know the author borrowed the title from a line in Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse”. A lot of book titles represent allusions to classic literary works; many lack any relation to the story. (Steinbeck’s own The Moon is Down abstracted from Macbeth comes to mind.) I really applaud the way Steinbeck applied the novel’s appellation to the actual narrative. In the beginning of the book the author described how Lennie kept killing mice because of his stature in relation to their diminutive size. (Page 803) Because of this, the title had both literal and figurative connotations. I applaud the author for his creativity.

I would describe Steinbeck’s use of foreshadowing in this work as without peer. He utilized a lot of it, especially for a short novel. At no time did I find it excessive or obvious. Early in the tale George referenced an incident between Lennie and a girl in another town. (Page 804) Carlson’s euthanizing of the dog hinted at more tragedy to come. Of course, Lennie’s accidental slaying of both the mouse and puppy also intimated a more serious inadvertent killing on his part. In addition, the author worked all these events into the larger narrative. At no point did they stop the story from moving forward.

One element that I always miss in so called “works of literary merit” is the use of symbolism. I didn’t have that trouble with 1937’s Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck’s parallels between Carlson’s views and the policies enacted in Nazi Germany were difficult to ignore. I found Carlson’s cavalier attitude toward euthanasia chilling. The author even gave him the last line in the book. It will haunt me for the rest of my days.

The only thing about this novel I didn’t like occurred during the exchange between Lennie and Curley’s wife. (The author didn’t provide her with a name.) This passage showed me that even the best authors aren’t immune from “rookie” mistakes.

…”’Nother time I met a guy, an’ he was in pitchers. Went out to Riverside Dance Palace with him. He says he was gonna put me in the movies. Says I was a natural. Soon’s he got back to Hollywood he was gonna write to me about it.” She looked close at Lennie to see whether she was impressing him. “I never got that letter,” she said. “I always thought my ‘ol lady stole it. Well, I wasn’t gonna stay no place where I couldn’t get nowhere or make something of myself, an’ where they stole your letters. I ast her if she stole it, too, an’ she says no. So I married Curley. Met him out at the Riverside Dance Palace that same night.” (Page 863)

I found this section completely unbelievable. Would Curley’s wife really tell Lennie about her sordid romantic history during their first conversation with one another? The other guys in the camp had been there much longer and they didn’t know anything about her past. In addition, I’ve heard of dating on the rebound, but Curley’s wife’s response seems extreme. How could marrying a former boxer ameliorate a movie career that never happened? The author made the character of Curley’s wife a one dimensional tart. I couldn’t determine if she behaved as such due to a lack of judgment or intellect.

While I’ve read Of Mice and Men before, I found it well worth exploring again. It amazed me that the author could weave so many literary elements into such a short novel. He also achieved this without anything coming across as forced or pedantic. That would certainly explain why the story is still widely read today and will be for generations to come.