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A CurtainUp Review
Of Mice and Men

George won't let me tend the rabbits if he finds out you got killed. — Lennie to the little dead puppy.

Scott Greer and Anthony Lawton in Of Mice and Men
Scott Greer and Anthony Lawton in Of Mice and Men
Few of John Steinbeck's works have made it to the stage, even though his classic novels have been turned into equally classic films. Though a Nobel Prize winner, Steinbeck has somehow fallen out of favor and, like Pearl Buck, hardly seems Nobel-worthy in the same way as fashionable writers like Toni Morrison.

Still, Of Mice and Men, rewritten for the stage by the author, is a fine little story. Too easily dismissed as sentimental, it brings to my mind the best of contemporary classics such as Waiting for Godot, especially in the first scene which finds Lennie and George alone on the road with a can of beans and a hankering for ketchup. It also reminds me of Brokeback Mountain which, however innovative it may have been, was most certainly not the first depiction of male love on the open road.

No doubt, the reason such grand themes came to mind as I watched this splendid production is because the actors so fully inhabit their operatic roles. As small as they may seem in the grand scheme of things, Steinbeck has filled them with the kind of dreams that build nations.

Out there on that bare stage, beautifully lit by Shelley Hicklin with a crimson California sunset, the two epic characters appear, appropriately enough, first as shadows and finally as men. It takes only a few lines for the audience to be in their grip and to know they are witnessing two of the finest theatrical performances to be found this year in Philadelphia or in any other great city.

Scott Greer plays Lennie with Greek, tragic dimensions. Greer has the physique l and voice for the role, and nails the movements of an imbecile with a heart of gold. Take any part of this marvelous actor's body, focus on it, and you will see the character of Lennie play itself out. The fingers, the eyes, that giant body guided by a child's mind: it's all there.

One should be happy enough to have such a magnificent Lennie, but Greer's performance is matched by Anthony Lawton's George. These guys were made for each other. Lawton is tough, brittle, ornery, but saintly in his patience and love for Lennie. Although we may cry for poor Lennie, the final scene is made all the more heart-breaking by our knowledge of what George's act will do to him.

Once at the ranch, this Laurel and Hardy couple learn quickly enough that the road to paradise has obstacles. They find a friend in Candy (Bev Appleton) and manage to get past the Boss (Paul L. Nolan) without too much damage, but then they meet trouble in the shape of Curley (Darren Michael Hengst) and his shapely wife (Karen Peakes).

This fine troupe's acting never falters under Mark Clements' able direction. Nolan struts with appropriate authority, Hengst is a pugnacious fireball, and Ms Peakes plays the "tart" as a fellow traveler in search of companionship. Like Candy and Crooks (Lindsay Smiling), she's just a lonely soul. Bev Appleton does a find job of conveying what it feels like to be treated like an old "stinky" dog. One of the best scenes is when the only black man (Crooks) plays host to the lost whites who gather for no other reason than their need for companionship. The rest of the ranch hands perform ably, with Carlson (Russ Widdall) and Whit (Ian Merrill Peakes) filling their roles with a marvelous swagger. The standout, however, is Slim (Dan Olmstead) whose mere presence speaks volumes. Olmstead stands tall and captures the audience's attention with an artful stillness.

Ryk Lewis's music creates an atmosphere both foreign and familiar to all lovers of square dancing and rattlers. Colleen Grady works wonders with dungarees, handkerchiefs and cowboy boots. It is, however, Todd Edward Ivins's magnificently beamed structure that protects these isolated, frightened people from the elements. The set design fits the Walnut's enormous proscenium but never dominates it.

Steinbeck may nowadays play second fiddle to the trendy and popular, but this production brings you about as close as you'll ever get to an American tragedy. It's brutal, but as played here you'll feel blessed to have witnessed great theatre.
Of Mice and Men
Playwright: John Steinbeck
Directed by Mark Clements
Cast: Anthony Lawton as George; Scott Greer as Lennie; Bev Appleton as Candy; Paul L. Nolan as The Boss; Darren Michael Hengst as Curley; Karen Peakes as Curley's Wife; Dan Olmstead as Slim; Russ Widdall as Carlson; Ian Merrill Peakes as Whit; Lindsay Smiling as Crooks; and Hobo or Rupert as Candy's dog.
Sets: Todd Edward Ivins
Costumes: Colleen Grady
Lights: Shelley Hicklin
Sound: Ryk Lewis
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
Walnut Street Theatre, 215-574-3550; www.WalnutStreet
From 1/16/07 to 3/04/07; opening 1/16/07
Reviewed by David Lohrey, on February 4, 2007
broadway musicals: the 101 greatest shows of all time
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