An aching, desperate and even existential loneliness hovers over Mark Lamos’ cool appraisal of John Steinbeck’s own stage adaptation of his 1937 novel, “Of Mice and Men,” getting a handsome revival at the Westport Country Playhouse. Lamos stepped in as director when Paul Newman’s illness forced him to withdraw, but the play turns out to be a perfect fit for the replacement helmer’s tastefully spare, sensitive and unsentimental staging, making Steinbeck’s story a sad poem for the American Dream.
Design elements set the stage for the production’s elegiac tenor: Michael Yeargan’s set begins and ends the show with the simplest suggestion of outdoor vastness, contrasted with the confinements of the bunkhouse and barn that serve as a kind of rustic imprisonment for Steinbeck’s disenfranchised characters. Robert Wierzel’s lighting paints an eerie and mournful glow over it all. And John Gromada’s scene-changing compositions underscore the story’s increasing discordance.
Into this no man’s landscape come two itinerant ranch hands: wary dreamer George (Brian Hutchison) finds himself inexplicably but instinctively in the role of protector to Lennie (Mark Mineart), a simple-minded hulk of a man who, in his efforts to find softness in a harsh and unforgiving world of Depression America, unknowingly does harm.
They get work at a northern California ranch run by the boss’s son, the short and short-tempered Curly (Rafael Sardina), who is on edge about the wanderings of his restless new wife (Betsy Morgan). Also in the group of workers are compassionate ranch hand Slim (Matthew Montelongo), grizzled, gossipy old Candy (Edward Seamon), who lost his hand in a farm accident, and crippled Crook (Kene Holliday), forced to live in the stables because he is black.
When Candy hears of George and Lennie’s plans to find little place of their own where they can “live off the fat of the land,” he stakes the men with his savings and joins them in their pipe dream. But a dark inevitability surfaces in this oppressive and bleak atmosphere.
Hutchison balances the bitterness and hope that battles within everyman George, but doesn’t quite make the underwritten case for his moral attachment to Lennie. Mineart plays the gentle giant with natural simplicity, never overplaying Lennie’s limitations or power. But most moving is Seamon as the old codger who feels as expendable as his ancient dog; his anguish and anger break the calm with shattering desperation.
Holliday gives a rich perf as the black outcast who first delights in then identifies with Lennie’s fears, confusion and isolation. Morgan poignantly plays the unnamed “Curly’s Wife” not as a stereotypical tart but as a hardscrabble, lonely young woman with delusions of her own, whose final encounter with Lennie ends with tragic consequences for everyone.
Steinbeck lays out the foreshadowing pretty thick and the repetition of themes and lines would even make O’Neill blush. Yet within this dramaturgical heavy-handedness Lamos lays out a parallel tone of quiet grace. It comes in simple gestures, as when an old man turns slightly in his bunk while waiting for his ancient and unwanted dog to be shot. At other times it’s found in the moments of unnervingly long stillness where loneliness lives among these forgotten folk.