By John Steinbeck
Directed by Michael Patrick Thornton
Produced by Steppenwolf for Young Adults
At Steppenwolf Theatre’s downstairs theatre
Young Adult Matinee Series is Top Notch
Steppenwolf’s young adult matinee series is an absolute treasure in terms of exposing young people to quality theatre. The shows in the series are selected by Steppenwolf’s Young Adults Council, a group of high school students who want to learn the inner workings of the theatre. The series is a unique endeavor in which high quality works are produced especially for younger audiences based on their own input. We’re talking full-blown, Steppenwolf productions with the best talent available in Chicago. The current production, directed by Michael Patrick Thornton, is a case in point and a wonderful opportunity to develop an interest in theatre among the young…of all ages.
Set in the depression era of the 30’s, Of Mice and Men recounts the story of itinerant farm hands George (Paul D’Addario) and Lenny (Keith Kuppferer), whose dreams of having a few acres and living off the fat of the land are the universal longing for a place that is home. Lenny is a giant of a man with enormous physical strength, but he is severely mentally challenged. George has become his protector because he is incapable of functioning on his own. Lenny is a good person, without a grain of maliciousness in his being, but his strength is deadly when he becomes confused. The inherent potential for disaster realizes itself in poignant fashion over a few weeks on a northern California farm where the men have come to work.
The characters and the issues that the play deals with are as relevant today as when the novel from which the play is adapted first appeared. Race, gender roles, and even sexual identity are underlying themes that provide food for thought. There is a discussion following each performance; and judging by the amount of audience participation on the first day, young people really get these points and are engaged in them through this work. Jessie Fisher delivers a sensitive portrayal of the young wife of the farm boss’ bullying son Curley (Robert Belushi) as does Emanuel Buckley as Crooks, the crippled stable hand and only Black man anywhere around.
The isolation of these two characters – she, the only woman trapped in the house and he, unwelcome in the bunkhouse and out in the barn because of his color – is beyond sad. These are hard issues and this production does not back away from them or from the violence that is inherent in the plot.
Director Thornton has a light touch that is simultaneously age-appropriate and respectful without condescension. There are some things about the production that I might take issue with in a different context, but they are not worthy of mentioning in the context of this series. If you have a teenager who is interested in theatre, this is a fantastic opportunity for an outing that you will both love.
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