In a theater season that has seen the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center push the envelope further than it's done before, the 1937 drama Of Mice and Men might seem like a safe choice, a dull choice: the stuff of Depression-era retrospectives and middle-school reading lists.
But as I discovered at Friday's opening performance, John Steinbeck's play still packs a powerful punch. And in director Scott RC Levy's stunning production, that punch may even knock the breath out of you. (Read more about it here.)
The play, like the Pulitzer Prize-winning novella on which it's based, is set in California during the Great Depression. It centers on George and Lennie, migrant ranch workers who as the play opens are headed to a new job in the Salinas Valley.
They're not like the other ranch hands. They dream of buying their place, where the hard-bitten George won't have to answer to anyone, and the genial but mentally disabled Lennie can pet rabbits to his heart's content.
In the original 1937 Broadway production, Steinbeck was disturbed to learn that audiences were laughing "outrageously" at Lennie, as though he were some kind of clown. Lennie inspires some laughs in this production, too, but they're kinder laughs, sympathetic laughs. And if this Lennie refuses to be a clown, that's entirely due to the talent of Logan Ernstthal, making his FAC debut, who embues Lennie with a quiet, almost devout nobility.
A character that's almost as hard to get right is George, who acts more like a big brother than a friend to Lennie. At first, George seems mean-spirited — even cruel — as he puts Lennie down at every turn.
"It ain't bad people who cause all the trouble in the world," George tells him. "It's dumb people."
But Kent D. Burnham, also making his FAC debut, gives this tough-as-nails character a more nuanced spin, offering us glimpses of a more gentle soul within. This George, we know, really cares for the big lug.
Despite George's efforts to keep Lennie out of trouble, however, things soon spin out of control. Curley, the boss' son, played with sneering malevolence by Kyle Dean Steffen, has it in for Lennie, and when Curley starts a fight with him — a fight that ends with his own hand being crushed — it triggers a series of events that can only lead to tragedy.
The entire cast is excellent, but I'd especially like to point out Jeremy Joynt, who usually finds himself cast as a wide-eyed young husband or boyfriend, but here shows a whole new breadth to his talent as the bitter, slouch-backed Carlson.
I was also pleased to see Sol Chavez return to the FAC stage after a 10-year absence as Candy, a chatty old duffer who manages to wrangle a place on George and Lennie's dream ranch.
This rough-and-tumble world is brought to vivid life by Janson Fangio's wonderfully weathered costumes and Christopher L. Sheley's lovingly detailed sets, especially the ramshackle bunkhouse and the lush backdrops inspired by the Depression-era murals of Thomas Hart Benton.
I also have to commend composer Samuel James, whose hauntingly evocative folk songs during set changes made me wish the stage hands had done their jobs a little slower.
Even if you already know how Of Mice and Men ends — and if you went to an American public school, you probably do — you may be surprised how much more powerful it is on stage. As the play hurtled toward its inevitable conclusion, it seemed as though the entire audience held its breath, and only when George made his final, fateful decision did the tension release itself in a single collective gasp.
It was an amazing experience. But then, that's what great theater can do.