By John Steinbeck
Directed by Michael Patrick Thornton
Produced by Steppenwolf for Young Adults
At Steppenwolf Theatre’s downstairs theatre
Moving classic tale of friendship and survival fuels Of Mice and Men
Steppenwolf Theatre’s series for Young Adults mounts terrific theatre—period! Under the tight, flowing direction of Michael Patrick Thornton, Of Mice and Men left the high school students in the audience in tears. They strongly emphasize with both George and Lenny. Of Mice and Men is a compelling and unsentimental tale of friendship and loneliness.
The classic 1937 John Steinbeck novel that most students have to read for English class comes to life. The formula for excellent theatre is simple: find a great play, have it directed by a smart, caring director and cast it with talented character actors respectful of the material. That is exactly what waits at Steppenwolf Theatre through May 10, 2009. I only wish this production could be seen by every high school student in Chicago land.
Originally written as a novel, Steinbeck’s look at the world of itinerant farm laborers as they drift from harvest to harvest always dreaming of the place they can “live off the fat of the land,” encompasses themes of loneliness and alienation rampant during The Great Depression. Of Mice and Men became an instant classic novel and a hit Broadway play directed by George S. Kaufman (1939). Steinbeck adapted his novel for the stage.
We meet Lennie (Keith Kupferer in a most empathetic performance) who is mentally challenged rendering him child-like despite his massive physical strength, and his traveling partner and father-like friend George (the effective Paul D’Addario) who constantly gets frustrated with Lennie’s mental lapses. In the early scenes we see how interdependent the two hobo-like itinerant farm laborers have become. Lennie needs George to navigate basic human needs and George needs Lennie to give his life a purpose and some companionship. D’Addario and Kupferer realistically deliver their codependence that runs from a ‘buddy” friendship to father-son love. The chemistry between these two was deep and compelling.
The two dream of a place of their own, land that they can raise chickens and rabbits where alfalfa and vegetables are prolific and where they ‘call the shots’ giving them complete independence. Lennie constantly asks George, “Tell me about the rabbits!”
To survive, especially with Lennie unable to control his strength (he tends to squeeze small animals to death as he tries to pet them), they wander the farm country in Northern California seeking work so they can amass a ‘stake’ toward their dream.
The two end up at a ranch where they are hired at bindlestiffs. Life as a ranch hand in the 1930’s, living in a bunkhouse is austere and devoid of privacy. We meet other lonely, single wanders whose empty lives consist of work, food, sleep and a monthly drinking and sexual encounter at the whore house. The depressed old man, Candy (deeply played by Richard Henzel) laments the loss of his aging dog greets the two buddies. Ron Butts is effective as the ranch boss and one of the labors while Robert Belushi is the manic, jealous husband, Curley whose new wife, played with sensual undertones by the marvelous Jessie Fisher. James D. Farruggio as Slim, the skinner is friendly and typifies the classic cowboy persona.
Without giving away the driving dramatic forces at play, we see the tensions mount as the characters become victims of forces beyond their control. The character development of Paul D’Addario’s George is truthful. The heart wrenching ‘act of love’ scene at the play’s end culminates this look into the depths of friendship. Keith Kupferer’s simple, vulnerable and clueless Lennie wins our love. This drama offers excellent glimpses into the true nature of male bonding. It also demonstrates the power of live theatre to reach into our souls.
At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, Il, Call 312-335-1650, tickets $20, Public performances: April 25, May 2 & 3, 9 & 10 at 11 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission, www.steppenwolf.org