Of Mice and Men


Editorial Review

'Men': Olney's Reverent, Austere Take on Steinbeck

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 2, 2007; C07

A big, empty stage can be a lonely place, and the Olney Theatre Center uses that to good advantage in John Steinbeck's Depression-era classic, "Of Mice and Men."

This is a still, quiet production, the kind in which you hear a dog barking now and then in the distance, and iconic figures are silhouetted against a vast sky. In this spare environment, simple sentences ring loud and clear with basic human yearning, like big, dumb Lennie's "Why ain't you wanted?" and "I seen your light."

Lennie, you'll recall, is the gentle giant who constantly wreaks accidental havoc. He pets mice for simple pleasure and inevitably breaks their little necks. That's not the worst of it, which is why his jittery pal, George, looks after him, grousing the whole way yet stoking them both with dreams of a better future -- one in which George can tend rabbits while they both live off the fat of the land.

The abiding power of Steinbeck's tale lies in how eagerly other California migrant workers attach themselves either to George and Lennie's dream, or to the simple fact that they have each other. Director Alan Wade's production observes this with great clarity and empathy. The actors play these famous characters dead straight and with deep feeling for the fact that in this time and place, everyone's got it tough.

The guts of it is Lennie, a daunting role for any actor. How do you keep him from being a lumbering, bellowing Young Frankenstein? Christopher Lane tackles it with a big, slow voice and a curious face that compels you to see the world through Lennie's eyes, and you never really doubt the character's hard muscle or soft heart.

Richard Pilcher brings a frustrated, hard-bitten quality to George that sets the tone for much of the performance, with actors approaching their roles as if they were in an old western. Jeff Allin is classically taciturn as Slim, the most respected of the workers on the ranch where George and Lennie alight; and John Dow channels the spirit (if not the voice) of Walter Brennan as Candy, the old man whose smelly dog becomes a big issue in the bunkhouse.

Keith N. Johnson ably channels the reasoned bitterness of Crooks, the black worker forced to sleep apart from the white workers, just as Robert Leembruggen captures the casual brutality of the self-absorbed Carlson. Carlos Candelario is a feisty dandy as Curley, and Margo Seibert's defensive turn even conjures sympathy for Curley's wife, the flirtatious beauty who sparks the disastrous climax.

This good, lean acting fits well on Carl Gudenius's unfussy set -- an open expanse of wood-planked floor with as little scenery as possible (a rail fence, the tight quarters of the bunkhouse, etc.). If the story doesn't land with its full force -- and it doesn't, quite -- it might be because Wade nails all the details, but at a key moment or two doesn't fully exploit how they add up.

Not much to complain about, though, when so much lines up so nicely -- the rugged, earthy look of Kathleen Geldard's costumes, and how Jarrett C. Pisani's sound design seems to expand the space into unseen open fields. It's a reverent approach, and a generally effective way to tell this great American tale. Throughout, you get the sense of a company with its head bowed, genuflecting at the altar of Steinbeck.

"Of Mice and Men" is known for its vivid descriptions and character development. Presented by the Olney Theatre Center, director Allen Wade faithfully re-creates John Steinbeck's 1937 masterpiece with phenomenal acting and a beautiful set.

The play follows George Milton (Richard Pilcher), a shrewd man but physically small, and his gigantic, mentally retarded friend Lennie (Christopher Lane), as they search for work as migrant ranchers in California during the Great Depression.

Along the way, they run into Curley (Carlos Candelario), the ranch owner's son who has a promiscuous wife and a serious Napoleon complex, and Candy (John Dow), a kind-hearted amputee who joins in on Lennie and George's illusions of grandeur.

As one of literature's most famous duos, Pilcher and Lane have their work cut out for them as George and Lennie, but Lane negotiates Lennie's endearing simplicity and his frightening mood swings, while Pilcher effortlessly conveys both George's frustration with and affection for his unmanageable friend.

The play's set adds to the hardscrabble feel of the text -- a rustic bunkhouse and barn set the tone for the dreary subject matter, and while the men of the ranch lead miserable lives, they pass the time dreaming of better days ahead. It's a poignant story that holds up many years after the Great Depression that inspired it.

--Jason Keobler (Express, October 4, 2007)