Palm Beach Dramaworks presents Steinbeck play with power, seriousness

Review

Palm Beach Dramaworks presents Steinbeck play with power, seriousness

Oct 16 2013
Hap Erstein | Palm Beach Post

It is often noted in "Of Mice and Men" that migrant workers tend to be loners. That makes the symbiotic team of scrappy, parental George Milton and hulking, mentally stunted Lennie Small a rarity that draws suspicion from the other ranch hands in John Steinbeck's enduring, dusty, downbeat drama. Solitary drifters are the opposite of theater folk, who depend on each other in this most collaborative of arts. That interconnection among performers is particularly evident in the new production at Palm Beach Dramaworks, an exceptional display of ensemble acting under J. Barry Lewis's deft direction. Long before odd couples became a staple of stage and screen, Steinbeck created two iconic characters who cling to each other against the world. They also cling to the unlikely dream of buying a farm, settling down, growing crops and – of particular appeal to the child-like Lennie – raising rabbits. George, Lennie and their remarkable friendship in the face of adversity are at the center of "Of Mice and Men" to be sure. But it is the secondary characters that sketch in the community of Depression-era "bindle stiffs," their quiet desperation, resilience and unapologetic racism that make the tale both timeless and a window on a bitter period in our history. ...Heading the cast is Dramaworks regular John Leonard Thompson ("Candida," "American Buffalo") as George, a wiry bantam with a pragmatic streak and a sense of the inevitability of Lennie landing them in trouble. It is easy to see why Lennie is dependent on George, but Thompson shows us how George depends on Lennie to keep their distant dream alive. Inevitably, perhaps, it is Brendan Titley, making his Dramaworks debut as Lennie, who dominates the production. He says little – though more than George wants him to – as Titley skillfully takes us inside the feeble-minded giant's head as he struggles for understanding. The actor radiates a gentle, child-like quality, but never allows us to forget the character's brute strength. With much less stage time, many cast members forge strong impressions. Dennis Creaghan is a standout as grizzled, maimed farmhand Candy, as old and broken down as his swayback dog. Betsy Graver plays the only woman on the ranch, not even worthy of a name, known only as Curley's wife. She is newly wed to the boss's son and already flirting brazenly with the migrant workers. In her second act scene with Lennie, we see that she too has a pipe dream – Hollywood stardom. As Crooks, W. Paul Bodie ("Master Harold...and the boys") brings dignity to the role of the one black worker, yet another outcast on the farm. The play calls for three distinct locales, which Michael Amico captures resourcefully with a unit set of rough-hewn wood and corrugated metal. It works well in tandem with John Hall's lighting design, particularly the searing shafts of sun and shadow he creates in the second act. "Of Mice and Men" is a very Dramaworks play, the sort of serious theater that most other companies shy away from, with a sizeable cast that fits the Brown Theatre comfortably. It is rendered with a toughness that we have come to expect from the company, and is always a pleasure to encounter. The verdict: Steinbeck's classic tale of itinerant farmhands and their unlikely dreams, performed with unflinching power by an affecting ensemble. Grade: A