Sunday, January 26, 2014

Of Mice and Men Comes to Life Through Shared Emotions

By Matt Falduto
Photos by Josef Wise

Brett Borden as George (foreground);
Jaret Morlan as Lennie
Iowa City - John Steinbeck wrote the classic story Of Mice and Men with an eye toward a live performance. With locations that are easily depicted on stage and a distinct focus on the characters, the story is easily translated to the stage without losing any of its emotional impact. The Iowa City Community Theatre does a fine job bringing this moving story to its audience. 

Of Mice and Men is the story of two ranch hands traveling from job to job during the Great Depression. Lennie, an incredibly strong man, is what we’d call mentally challenged today. Back then, everyone called him “crazy” and “nuts.” Another ranch hand, George, takes care of Lennie, who brings out the best in George. Their friendship is one in which both gain far more than they’d ever admit. They come to a ranch where Lennie is caught in a tragic situation that leads to a heartbreaking conclusion.

Everyone is yearning for a better life and that desperate need surges through every main character in the play. Crooks, the African American stable hand, desperately wants to be accepted. Curley’s Wife is profoundly lonely, trying to find someone to connect with. George animatedly describes to Lennie a better life for them. Candy, the one handed ranch hand, latches onto their dream and comes alive. And Lennie, sweet and simple Lennie, wants to have rabbits to take care of. Every actor understands and projects this underlying desperate need and that common emotion holds the production together.

Jaret Morlan is fantastic as Lennie. He expertly uses mannerisms and facial expressions to create an extremely believable character. When he conspicuously touches another character, particularly George, it’s always to emphasize the emotions beneath the surface. It’s a truly an amazing performance and you should see the production just to experience it. Brett Borden, as George, plays off Morlan’s Lennie very well and together they have created a deep friendship that serves the tragic story well. In the final moments of play, Borden does his best work, conflicted and in pain as George… well, see the play if you don’t already know the story.

(L-R) Rip Russell, Morlan, Borden,
Rachel Korach Howell, and Joshua Raheim
The supporting actors are also good. Rip Russell (Candy) and Josef Wise (Slim) particularly seem to understand their characters. Both use their physicality – Wise with a slow but commanding stride and Russell with a cautious and nervous shuffle – to bring to life the man’s man of the ranch and the old timer, respectively. Joshua Raheim expertly displays Crooks’ pride while showing his pained bitterness as well. Rachel Korach Howell, as Curley’s Wife, brings depth to a character Steinbeck doesn’t even deign to give a name. Curley’s Wife is defined by the misogynistic characters around her, and despite that Howell elicits empathy and understanding for her plight.

The set is well designed by Michael Blake, with a sliding barn door upstage center to set the scene, bunk beds that turn around to create another setting, and a simple table downstage. Eric Burchett’s excellent lighting design effectively highlights different moments in the play. Music sets the time period well. All of these technical aspects serve to transport us to a ranch in the midst of the Depression.

Kehry Anson Lane’s staging is mostly done quite well, particularly during the George and Lennie scenes as he uses their placement on stage to emphasize emotions and connections between the characters. One of the challenges in setting the entrance upstage center is that it’s very easy for actors to upstage each other as they react to those entering the scene. However, Lane’s production never suffered from this issue due to his thoughtful staging. The combat scenes are brutally intense. Since I don’t see a stage combat choreographer listed in the program, I’m assuming Lane is responsible for that work as well.

There were times that we missed some of the supporting actors' work because of the placement of a table front and center in the bunkhouse scenes. For instance, we couldn’t see Candy listening to George and Lennie discuss their plan to find a home because George and Lennie were blocking him. We could tell Candy was listening (or maybe I just knew he was being familiar with the story), but missed all of his reactions to their words. This wouldn’t have been issue for those sitting up high in the audience, but for those of us in the front row, it was a little frustrating. It’s a small quibble as overall the direction was top notch.

This is a fine production of an American classic that boasts excellent acting and strong direction. I would definitely encourage you to check it out. Of Mice and Men runs one more weekend, January 31 & February 1 at 7:30 p.m., and February 2 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets available here.

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