Of Actors and Singers

Most anyone who's taken high school English can recall something about Lennie and George, the two lost souls at the center of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Wiry George is full of inborn smarts and keeps his wistful heart buried deep inside. He looks out for lumbering Lennie, who's got the mind of a child, the strength of an ox and a fatal obsession with soft things. This ragged pair wander from job to job with nothing more than a can of beans and a couple of bedrolls to their names. Earning our pity and admiration, their unshakable friendship helps them find their way through a wide and hostile universe. For as George says to Lennie, "Guys like us are the loneliest guys in the world."

Written in 1936 and adapted for the stage in 1937, Steinbeck's depression-era tale glitters with misty sadness about the solitary nature of life. But there's also a tendency toward romanticism in the story: The good guys are working-class stiffs; the bad guys have all the money; and the slatternly blond, who wanders down from the big house to check out the new guys, is nothing but soft, curvy trouble. The most disappointing aspect of the Alley production, now running in its newly renovated Neuhaus Arena Stage, is that director James Black has embraced this romanticized version of life as an itinerant worker and ignored its gritty reality.

The set, designed by the usually impressive Kevin Rigdon, looks like it could have been pulled off an old cowboy movie. Two corners of the stage are done up like old barn doors, the sort that let in long blades of dramatic, dusky light at all the right moments. The other two are filled with bucolic greenery framing red dirt paths. There's something too perfect in all this brown wood and silvery green. In the bunkhouse, six identical wooden beds line the walls with evenly spaced, fairy-tale precision. The tidy, spare room fails to capture the despair and grime of a bunch of cathouse-loving men who work for a month then quit once they've got $50 in their jeans. Lennie looks about and says, "I don't like this place, this ain't no good place," but as imagined by Rigdon, it's as pretty as a postcard version of summer camp.

Another problem with Black's production is the treatment of Curley's Wife. It's bad enough that Steinbeck treats this character with the viciousness that he does: He doesn't bother to name her; he makes her the catalyst for everything that goes wrong in Lennie and George's life; and worst of all, after Lennie accidentally kills her, the farmhands stand over her corpse inspecting her body and scorning her with an almost biblical hatred. Of course, Steinbeck does attempt to redeem her a bit when he lets her tell her sorry story, which includes an alcoholic father and a careless mother, to the only person who will listen, the simpleton Lennie. But as played by Shelley Calene-Black under her husband's direction, Curley's Wife is much worse than an ordinary floozy, she becomes a whore from the hateful bottom of hell. Nobody in their right mind would forgive her for being alive, much less for what she does to poor old dumb Lennie. (After all, if she hadn't asked him to come over and stroke her soft hair, he wouldn't have accidentally broken her neck.) She even looks scary. Wearing ghoulish makeup that transforms the otherwise lovely Calene-Black into a young version of Bette Davis's Baby Jane, she struts about with an ugly gracelessness. She comes off not so much as a "tart," as the old ranch hand Candy calls her, but more as a monster. This strange choice undermines the sexual tension of the script and comes off as willfully misogynistic.

Also miscast is K. Todd Freeman in the role of George. With his thin, powerful body and quick, intelligent eyes, he certainly looks the part. Dressed romantically in a dirty flannel shirt and mud-hemmed canvas britches, he's every bit the man we're supposed to pity most, the man who's bitterly aware of the consequences of his friend's mistake. But Freeman has an inner grace that looks out of place in this world. He moves with snakelike ease; there is none of George's toughness, his back-breaking work, in Freeman's sinewy spine. He bangs his fists on his thighs when he gets worried or scared, but this hardly seems the gesture of a hardscrabble man who's been dodging trouble all his life. Freeman's George is smart, and his charisma is powerful, but he never seems to fit comfortably into his working-class boots.

As Lennie, David Rainey is easy to like. His wide freckled face breaks into big beautiful grins, and his dark eyes fairly dance with innocent joy every time George tells him something good. But Rainey is sometimes too simple, for as innocent as the characters insist Lennie is, he's still capable of great violence. He kills small animals, breaks other men's hands and finally takes the life of a woman -- all "by accident." Steinbeck hints at Lennie's danger throughout the play -- he gets angry when things don't go his way, he's not able to control his impulses -- and Rainey reveals this menace in brief flashes. But the ominous side of the character is dismissed easily. Because the character is too innocent, the story is too thin. The paradoxes of the script are blurred beyond recognition when Lennie bears no culpability for his actions.

Disappointing as these choices are, Black's production is not without merit. The supporting cast is one of the best things about the show: Charles Krohn's Candy, the lonely old man who loses his dog and his dream, is heartbreaking; Timothy Dickson's giggling, good-natured Whit is simply terrific; and Davi Jay makes a heartthrob of Slim (it's no wonder Curley's Wife can't stay out of the bunkhouse).

Despite the production's flaws, it holds on to the essence of Steinbeck's message about the existential loneliness of the human condition. When George is forced to give up his only friend at the story's end, you can't help but weep for the frailty of our lives.

Carlisle Floyd's operatic adaptation of Steinbeck's novel certainly cannot be accused of too much romanticism. In fact, apocalyptic is a better word to describe it. The 1970 opera is all bone and fists, with no fear of cutting down to the dirty underside of Lennie and George's story.

Designer Richard Hudson fills the stage with a bleak landscape. The story opens in a rail yard rather than a clearing in the woods. Piles of rusting metal capture the violent nature of a life spent drifting from place to place. Two tracks of railroad end here, foreshadowing the outcome of the story: Lennie and George will never get out of this place together. The metal bunkhouse looks more like a prison workhouse. And the giant barn, where Lennie does his "very bad thing," feels dangerous; a long row of scythes hangs across the back wall, and an enormous threshing machine stands mutely in the corner.

The music is also grim and tough, but the complex harmonies and lean libretto strip the story of any soulful ruminations on the nature of man's loneliness. Of course, without these ruminations, Steinbeck's story seems a bit pointless. Two men travel together, come up with the cockamamie idea of owning some land, then fall victim to a steamy vixen in a short red skirt. Floyd's version is less emotionally effective than it could be, and should be.

Still, there are some wonderful performances, especially Anthony Dean Griffey in the role of Lennie Small. It is perhaps hard to image how Lennie could exist in the milieu of opera, but Griffey pulls off the strange fusion with fine acting and his wonderfully tender tenor. Lennie is also the best-written character in the opera; Floyd has distilled the oaf's language down to its essence.

Elizabeth Futral as Curley's Wife is steamy, and Floyd has given her some sultry, lilting music to sing. But Gordon Hawkins's George is less appealing. There is none of the angsty dreamer in this George; he's all logic and business about the farm they hope to buy. And it's hard to feel for him when he shoots Lennie to save him from the law.

This opera fails to pull from its miserable, rusty landscape any of the deep sorrow intrinsic to Steinbeck's story. Nobody except slow, violent Lennie seems to give a damn about anyone else. That message is too bleak even for the new millennium.

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Lee Williams