The set-up: If you don't have access to any of those defining and iconic Depression-era photographs by Dorothea Lange, then turn your gaze to Texas Repertory Theatre's evocative production of John Steinbeck's classic tale of '30s hardscrabble migrant workers, Of Mice and Men (1937).
The stage pictures are unrelenting: dashed dreams, crushed hope, and aching loneliness. There's a flutter of male bonding, what Steinbeck called "somebody to talk to that gives a damn," but friendship can't compete with grinding poverty, bigotry, and the forces of fate. Steinbeck paints a mighty gloomy picture of the American Dream. Yet his poor itinerant workers dream on. That's all they have.
The execution: At the play's heart is odd couple George and Lenny. Inseparable, these two diametrically different men need and complete each other. George (Mark Roberts) dreams of a farm where he can be his own master, free to come and go as he likes, answerable to no one. "Slow" Lenny (Sean Patrick Judge), a bear of a man with incredible strength but a child's capacity, shares George's dream because all he wants is a pen full of soft rabbits to raise and fondle. Caretaker to this man/child, George is too decent to ditch him. Lenny couldn't survive without him, and George needs Lenny's boundless optimism to fuel his dream. But Lenny's innocent yearning to touch soft things has caused trouble, like that recent incident with the woman in the soft dress, which is why they're on the way to a new ranch job.
In Steinbeck's microcosm of hardship, the ranch hands have their own problems. Feeble, one-handed Candy (Toby Mattox) is as useless around the ranch as his cherished companion, an old, stinky, half-blind dog. He knows his days are numbered, so are his dog's. He pledges his life savings (all $300) toward the down payment for George's farm, a place to finally feel secure. Bitter and disillusioned, black stable hand Crooks (Brandon Balque) is shunned by the whites, forbidden to eat or fraternize with them. His only solace, the books he constantly reads at night. Even though he knows George's ideal of a farm is a dream "like heaven," Crooks, too, becomes enchanted with the idea of becoming a truly free man. He's in, if the others will have him.
Curly (James Monaghan), the boss's son, has problems of a different sort: his nubile wife (Haley Hussey). Pathologically jealous, Curly picks fights whenever he can, usually with someone smaller. As the only woman on the ranch (she's the only character without a name), "Curly's wife" loves to sashay into the bunkhouse whenever Curly's not around and give the guys "the eye." With no friends, the wife just wants to talk to somebody. A little warmth would be OK, too. She has her own pie-in-the-sky dream: Hollywood. Slim (J. Cameron Cooper), Carlson (David Walker) and young Whit (Shane Manning) share the bunkhouse, rounding out the story's atmosphere, and the actors seem very much at home on the range.
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Gruff yet sympathetic, Roberts' George might be down but not out. He wants that farm more than anything, that's what keeps him going. He's as caught up in the vision as Lenny, but there's no wildness in Roberts' obsession. We've got to believe in those chickens and barley fields, too. He doesn't make us see them. Looking like Goliath among the farm hands, Judge plays Lenny with clean simplicity. Keeping his head bowed so as not to attract attention, he's a powerful presence. Those lethal hands, capable of snapping a mouse or a pretty woman's neck, hide in his jeans or hang limply by his side. Childlike, he doesn't know what to do when a puppy nips his hand other than hit it or quiet it by stopping its mouth. Innocent Lenny is capable of not-so-innocent things. There's no one to help him, not even George, who loves him in his fashion, but is powerless to prevent his outbursts. Judge builds Lenny's character detail by detail. Lenny can't figure out what's wrong, only that he always does something bad and George will be sore. Judge lets us peer inside.
Nicely shaded to bring out her desperation, Hussey's hussy is a lot deeper than tramp; Balque's Crooks is edged with quills; and Monaghan's Curly is a bantam rooster, all puffed up, until Lenny frighteningly silences his crowing.
Texas Rep's production looks great. Scenic designer Trey Otis's unit set of slatted wood is worn and weather-beaten; costumer Macy Lynn's overalls and boots are sweat-stained and scuffed; while lighting designer Eric Marsh's pastel evenings and blood-red sunsets add to the tragic mood. Perhaps hampered by the gravity inherent in this international bestseller and Broadway hit, director Steven Fenley steers it leisurely. Time is made for Steinbeck's rough-knuckled poetry and sentiment, but other scenes lumber, allowing the tension to lapse and our focus to wander.
The verdict: George's dream unravels with terrible consequences. Steinbeck is, and always was, on the side of the little guy, but even he can't do anything to help these drifters on the edge. Sometimes there's nothing to do but bear witness. Of Mice and Men does that with noble eloquence. Of Mice and Men continues through November 9 at Texas Repertory Theatre, 14243 Stuebner Airline Road. Purchase tickets online at texasreptheatre.org or call 281-583-7573. $15-$43.