The Pasadena Playhouse has transposed “Of Mice and Men” to reflect the vast wartime influx of Mexican migrant workers freeing whites for factory duty, and there’s one sure measure of its success: You never want to see the play done any other way again. This is a solid revival by any standard, but the flavorful and timely concept in particular, coupled with Steinbeck’s sturdy theatricality, is a natural for other regionals and beyond.
Turning the warily hopeful George (David Norona) and gentle giant Lennie (Al Espinosa) into “Braceros,” as they began to be known in 1942, adds Spanglish flavor and melody to the familiar give-and-take babble over “living off the fat of the land” and “tell me about the rabbits.” (Except for the occasional tossed-in Spanish expression, text is largely unaltered.)
And the play is further enhanced by expanding the ethnic mix.
The struggle to put together enough scratch to buy a share in the American Dream becomes even more quixotic when the dreamers are aliens, especially those living under thumb and whim of crusty, unpredictable the white ranch Boss (Josh Clark) and mean-spirited son Curley (Joshua Bitton). The us-vs.-them tension in California’s farms and factories, always a Steinbeckian preoccupation and underlying the immigration debate today, is ratcheted up significantly in this production.
Steinbeck’s interest in America’s racial dynamics is intensified as well. With the Anglos in charge, but the Mexicans permitted to raise hell and socialize around the ranch, there’s greater anguish in the solitude imposed on the sole black hand, the crippled Crooks (Curtis C.), closeted with books and hopelessness.
Ethnicity aside, this is a solid “Of Mice and Men” in almost every respect, sharply observed and affecting though never sentimental. Helmer Paul Lazarus incorporates the play’s spine — the incredible difficulty of establishing human connections in a hard, hard life — into acting, staging and even design, through the imprisoning gates of D. Martyn Bookwalter’s slowly descending bunkhouse walls.
George embodies the play’s dilemma most obviously, torn between dragging around the countryside a big baby ignorant of his own strength and striking out on his own to end up mean and twisted (Crooks is the object lesson there). Norona, exuding world-weary patience and natural common sense, eloquently portrays the man’s endless grief in his lot.
Espinosa is a more gleeful Lennie than usual, meaning he’s a bigger handful than usual. His hands remain in twisted motion as if eager to grasp whatever comes along, but his deer-in-a-headlights expression shows he’s hyper-aware of the dangers around every corner. (Rita Salazar-Ashford’s giant overalls reveal character by de-emphasizing Espinosa’s head relative to a massive body.)
The farmhands deepen the production’s physical life, from Alex Mendoza’s foreman passing tall, silent judgment on ranch business to Bitton’s bantam rooster, Napoleon-complex Curley. (The instant he stands next to Lennie, we smell trouble.) Curtis C.’s perpetual squint and tortured body eminently evoke a life spent reading in shadow.
Most movingly, Thomas Kopache’s cheerfully garrulous Candy twists in empathetic agony as his old hound is removed for destruction. (Dog lovers be warned; it’s a tough moment.)
Out of step is Curley’s Wife. Madison Dunaway is put together well enough to send any rancher screaming onto the arroyo, but she’s too well put together mentally, too crisp and undamaged. Stomping rather than sashaying, she lacks the hungry languor needed to draw Lennie into their fateful pas de deux.
Other weaknesses are technical. Bookwalter’s cutout tree dominating upstage center is neither realistic nor satisfyingly abstract, and the Wife’s sundresses are too fine and clean, anticipating rather than denying her Hollywood fantasies. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz applies a bright, homey wash to a bunkhouse crying out for smoking lanterns and bare bulbs.
With moodier lighting at hand, Lazarus might have foregone the corny, overdone convention of expressionistic effects to point up violent moments — the one lapse in an otherwise impeccable staging.