Today’s fixation on the failing of the American Dream presupposes that it was for centuries grandly humming along — that is, until something gummed up the works. However, back in 1937, John Steinbeck’s slim, grim novella Of Mice and Men asserted the myth of Manifest Destiny by illustrating how line between the haves and the have-nots was as impassable as the Continental Divide. His subsequent stage and screen adaptations then furthered that assertion, unleashing in popular culture an altogether different vantage of some faulty threads in our social fabric.
If you think it’s high time to revisit Steinbeck’s pull-no-punches critique of this country’s long-posited promise of boundless opportunity, Charleston Stage’s searing revival of Of Mice and Men directed by Marybeth Clark offers much to mull. By dint of some standout performances and a suitably roughhewn setting, the current production now on stage at the Dock Street Theatre sorts the mice from the men to harrowing and illuminating end.
Tracking the origins of the nation’s blue-collar workforce, the play tells the story of two denim-clad migrant worker friends, George and Lennie, who are metaphorically mangled in the manual labor machine of the Depression Era, grunting and heaving their way toward that brass ring of individualism that can be achieved only by way of a legitimate land grab. The ambitious, capable George has the perfect plot of dirt in mind; he just needs the cash to claim it.
Making his way from farm to farm toward that end, George always makes room for Lennie, his Herculean buddy of limited mental capacity, and the two cling to one another for better and for gruesome worse. Together, they aim to break free of the serial servitude that imprisons them and their fellow workers in a never-ending cycle of toil, payday, whisky, women, repeat.
The play, which in this production is staged on a set of barn wood and corrugated steel before a deep orange sky, highlights how the line between a landowner and worker may be unbridgeable. At the same time, it points up how the line between the innocent and the guilty, the meek and the strong, shifts with each encounter. At the core of this dichotomy is the outsize, childlike Lennie, who truly does not know his own strength. This results in him doing all manner of “bad things,” and his driving impulse to pet a mouse or stroke a woman’s soft dress goes repeatedly, horribly awry.
The strength and tenderness of this production lay firmly in the hands of Colin Waters, whose brilliant portrayal of Lennie inhabits a deft balance of force and pathos, one that is ultimately devastating as Lennie’s impulses get the better of him. Seamlessly snapping from guileless child to craven brute, Waters’ performance lays bare the fraught heart of the story.
As Lennie’s mastermind George, Jesse Siak delivers a convincing, compelling man of reason and purpose, ably embracing both George’s signature smarts and deep emotional reserves. He charts his own way through his wits, vision, and brotherly compassion, noodling out his next steps and earmarking a plot of land and means to get it, while staving off loneliness through his curious friendship with Lennie.
The set-up is a bit stilted, with an exposition-heavy, talky first act that can falter where it should threaten, amble where it could reveal the menace ever-lurking beneath the surface. After all, there is ample danger afoot. Lennie’s drives could get the better of him at any minute, and that puppy he is cuddling may fall prey. The unwelcome overtures of the boss’s son Curley’s wife (the engaging Sara Sanderson) could land a worker in a precarious spot, particularly the lone African-American hand Crooks (the resonant E. Dominique Henry).
For instance, there is the ominous Luger that is so boasted and bandied about by Curley (the sharp Sergio De La Espriella). It needs to be dramatically loaded — and, please, people, by that I don’t mean with live ammo. With its every brandish, we need to understand that it could train its tragic capacity on whatever character lands on the wrong end of it. We get a clear sense of this in a scene involving an elderly dog owned by the worker Candy (who aches in stunning silence, by way of the soulful Victor Clark).
With more grit and less grace, the collective threat could readily intensify earlier on, as it does in the second act when all comes home to roost and the innocent become guilty, while the suspect are rendered victims. It is, after all, a perilous proposition to enable those incapable of restraint and self-awareness to lumber about unchecked. It may well result in some undesirable deeds, like the crushing of wee puppies or the undoing of dreams.