Saturday, January 13, 2007

Of Mice and Men (Cleveland Play House)

Emotional 'OF MICE AND MEN' at CPH

‘OF MICE AND MEN,’ John Steinbeck’s play, which is now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, was the author’s attempt at writing in a format which he entitled a play novelette.

Steinbeck envisioned that the novel and the play would have the same format and be interchangeable. For example, each chapter is arranged as a scene, and each scene is confined to a single place.

In spite of the fact that the book is a classic which is read by most high school and college students, and sold over 120,000 before it was even published in 1937, Steinbeck considered the work a failure in the sense that it did not accomplish his goal since the play version was rewritten by George Kaufman, who directed its first production.

The novel/play which was transformed into five films, an opera and numerous stage productions, is not without controversy. In the 1990s several school libraries banned the book for “promoting euthanasia.” In fact, the book is number six on the list of the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.

The play, which is set on a ranch in the Salinas Valley in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s, centers on George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who dream of owning their own farm. Unfortunately, like the line in Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse,” which laid the foundation for the title and the script’s theme, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” the dream is not achieved.

George, is large, strong, unintelligent and innocent at heart. He lives to touch soft and furry things (rabbits, mice, soft materials), but often acts out physically when the animal nips or someone pulls away from him. George is his caretaker, friend and conscience. George and Lennie are like mice in the maze of life. Their extraordinary friendship distinguishes them from other lonely migrant workers who are individualists, afraid to show their softer feelings or bond with another person.

The CPH production, under the direction of Seth Gordon, is generally effective. The cast, with a few exceptions is excellent.

Jeffrey Evan Thomas is outstanding as Lennie. This is a difficult role. There is a temptation to overdo the character and make him pathetic or comic. Thomas walks the fine line with perfection. This is an amazing performance.

Harry Carnahan is believable as George. His affection and desire to protect Lenny from hurt, including his making a startling decision at the play’s final curtain, is clear. Even his oft repeated “If I was alone I could live so easy,” is clearly developed as a ploy to cover his need for the bonding.

Chet Carlin is convincing as Candy, the old man who has little for which to live. Jeremy Holm develops the role of Slim well , as does Wiley Moore as the “nigra.”

Amanda Rowan weakly stays close to the surface as the daughter-in-law of the ranch’s owner. Vayu O’Donnell is not believable as her husband. Caleb Sekeres (Whit) who uses a flat, no-affect delivery, fails to develop any characterization.

Hugh Landwehr’s multi-set design works well and James C. Swonger’s sound design helps develop the mood.

The first act is well-paced, but the second act lagged.

The power of the conclusion was disrupted by Gordon’s decision to bring up the lights too quickly, startling the audience back to reality, thus breaking their emotional envelopment.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘OF MICE AND MEN’ is a generally effective presentation with two srong performances by Jeffrey Evan Thomas and Harry Carnahan. It is a production that should be attended not only by the many students who study the show, but by those who like a good script which gets a good production.