If you're a regular theatergoer, every now and again you see a performance so complete, commanding, individual, that the player is a glorious reminder of why you continue to go when so many productions merely suffice, if not disappoint.
That's what happens watching James Hansen Prince's astounding performance as the hulking man-child Lennie in Theatre on the Square's vital production of John Steinbeck's affecting classic Of Mice and Men.
With furrowed brow and gaping mouth, and the distracted air of a dim mind, Prince's Lennie is at once instantly recognizable and thoroughly new: the famous injured innocent, victim of both his own retarded strength and the harsh world. Prince's Lennie is as good as John Malkovich's recent screen characterization -- even better, because Malkovich's palpable intelligence is inappropriate for Lennie.
Speaking in clipped rhythms and sluggish consonants, Prince's voice is the disturbing means to disturbed ends: the hesitant sputtering about his pipe dream -- one day tending rabbits and living off the fat of the land; the worrisome repetitions-cum-incantations of what George, his beloved travel partner who watches out for him, has told him to help keep him out of trouble; the limited tones of not understanding why he breaks the necks of the nice soft things he loves to pet -- mice, puppies, girls. With an imposing physicality befitting the part, Prince rocks when Lennie is happy, cradles himself when he's upset. He paws at confidant George, and he cowers as the reluctant warrior who defeats a runt bully by squeezing the fist he has caught till it snaps. The trust in, reliance upon, love for and fear of George that Prince gives Lennie are remarkable. His naked wail near play's end is wrenching; his final words to his only pal, numbing.
Also excellent is Allen Dorris as George, tolerantly irritated about caring for a misfit who's proud that he can make streams wrinkly by drinking from them but, as George puts it, is too dumb to abandon because he would starve to death. Exuding the wary resignation of a cumbersome life, Dorris, with a backwoods accent full of country knowledge the character can't fully use, is quick to tell Lennie he could've had a swell life if it weren't for him, but is as quick to let him know he doesn't mean it. A callused lost soul who nevertheless is hurting, Dorris' stubbled, cautious, hampered George is worlds away from his easy Cary-Grant-as-Mortimer takeoff in The Actors Theatre's recent Arsenic and Old Lace. He's quite moving when, despairing and dazed, he realizes not only that he and Lennie will never buy a ranch, but also that he knew this all along. He sags when it hits him what must happen to Lennie; then he steels himself, somehow compassionately, at the sad moment. As he has grown used to Lennie, we grow used to him.
Playing grizzled Candy, the one-handed sweeper desperate to get in on Lennie and George's homestead fantasy, Grant Kilpatrick keeps pace with the commanding leads. Employing the slurred speech of an impoverished laborer who can't afford dentures, Kilpatrick totters with the fidgets of palsy and the ineffective outrage of old age. (What range: Last year he was hysterically effective as a lecherous old queen in The Group Theatre Workshop's Earl, Ollie, Austin & Ralph.) It's agonizing to watch his lonely attachment to a dog he's been around so long that he doesn't even know it's stinking in decay. (The animal, by the way, acts its hangdog part well, even barking on cue.)
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When these actors are on stage together they create vivid, immediate theater -- so much so that you don't really mind the inadequacies of the supporting cast. Scott Cascadden is grating instead of invidious as Curley, the punk who picks on big guys because he isn't one himself and who keeps one hand gloved in Vaseline to stroke his wife. Sandra Rios makes Curley's wife an innocent yearner, although she isn't sensual enough to warrant the red dress she struts around in, causing a type of trouble the men fear. Darrell Walter Bell's Carlson is supposed to menace Candy about his dog, but he and the scene fall flat, and Hosea Lamont Simmons is too refined to be the angry, ostracized, hunchbacked "nigra" Crooks. The lesser players are even more disappointing and stilted. The play drags at times because of all of them: near the end, for instance, when they can't carry the tense weight of reacting to the shocking events.
This breach falls on Prince as director. So do the show's slipshod technics. The ragtag set -- bales of hay, blankets, crates, farm equipment -- is a little too naturalistic. Or not naturalistic enough, given the inconvenience of the visibly cluttered wings: Texas Junk Company's cast-off steel bookcases, hanging sleds, suitcases, typewriters, even cars under tarp. If Prince, founder of Theatre on the Square, cleaned up the place, he could enlarge the stage, foster significant blocking and create more and better seating (right now they use discarded sofas), not to mention install an adequate heating system and a stage door that doesn't have to double as the audience entrance.
Jason Stone's too-dim lighting is the same for every scene: dull yellow. Sometimes the actors' faces are barely visible. Flannels, jeans, shitkickers and cowboy duds work for costumes, but the frog-chirping, bird-tweeting, owl-hooting, coyote-howling sound effects inexplicably disappear after the first scene, while twangy guitar blues inexplicably appear only after intermission.
In announcing Steinbeck's Nobel Prize in 1962, the Swedish Academy declared: "He had no mind to be an unoffending comforter and entertainer. Instead, the topics he chose were serious and denunciatory." In his dramatic adaptation of Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck removed the social commentary about the Depression in rural America, in an attempt to make the play a classical tragedy. Even though he didn't endow a character with the requisite hubris (one who's mentally ill is, after all, ill, not flawed), the text still soars. It's a measure of the talented three principals, especially Prince and his unforgettable Lennie, that the drawbacks in this production seem negligible. The intelligent John Malkovich would surely agree.