Moonbox Productions, one of the small theater troupes that bubbles with new talent from the Boston area, has mounted an affecting production of Of Mice and Men.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Staged by Moonbox Productions. At the Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, Boston, MA, through December 22.
By Iris Fanger
To place the Depression-era characters from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men among the Nutcrackers and Fezziwigs dancing merrily around us at this time of year suggests a welcome disregard for holiday commercialism. In truth, the trenchant darkness of Steinbeck’s fable is leavened by a striking poignancy. The interdependency of Lenny, the mentally challenged, gentle giant, and George, his care-taker/best friend, presents a picture of loyalty and hope for a better future that makes the play—with all its bitterness—a work for all seasons.
Moonbox Productions, one of the small theater troupes that bubbles with new talent from the Boston area, has mounted an affecting production. It is well-cast and carefully staged by director Allison Olivia Choat on an evocative setting (designed by Courtney Nelson) of rough-hewn, weathered floorboards and walls that re-assemble quickly into the different locales. Choat has gathered a male ensemble of varied personalities and voice timbres to portray the drifters who move from ranch to ranch in search of work. A single woman character is on hand on stage to stir up fateful sexual tension.
Harry McEnerney is cast as Lenny, one of the most iconic figures in American literature. The actor is a large man with a baby face, well-suited to the contradictions of the character. His Lenny is mindful of his need for George’s protection but also dimly understands that he is a burden to him. Lenny’s passion for stroking soft objects, whether they are living (mice and puppies) or inanimate (the piece of velvet his deceased Aunt Clara once gave him) is the sensitivity that gets him into trouble. Given his over-zealous cuddling and great strength, he too often kills the things he loves or, in the case of women, frightens them enough to make them scream for help. McEnerney manages to walk the nuanced line between Lenny’s child-like behavior and his struggle to stay within the sensible boundaries George sets for him. Keeping far away from the clichés of the village idiot, McEnerney delivers a fascinating performance that confidently carries the production.
In contrast, the slightly built Phil Tayler, cast as George, turns the character into a pragmatist who is also a bit of a poet. Steinbeck gives the character the script’s loveliest language. Although George understands his need for Lenny (“I ain’t got any people,” he says), his willingness to nurture and protect his friend goes far beyond ordinary concern. Tayler emphasizes George’s snappishness: the character is quick to anger if he is crossed—or if Lenny is threatened. The conversational scenes between the pair, such as when George spins out the day-dream about the house with 10 acres they will buy—as soon as they have a stake—are beautifully staged. As George speaks, McEnerney’s Lenny squints off into the distance, straining to visualize this future paradise, a pose that foreshadows the tragedy of the ending.
Other performers of note include Erica Spyres as the randy, trouble-making wife of the boss’s son; Ed Peed as Candy, the aging ranch hand who offers to fund their dream if he can share it; and especially Calvin Braxton as Crooks, an African-American worker fighting the racism that separates him from the other men. Despite his loneliness, Braxton is eloquent when he defends his piece of turf from Lenny’s incursion. Braxton is forced to room alone because the white men will not allow him into the communal bunkhouse, nor into their easy comradery.
Contemporary critics raise the issue of Steinbeck’s misogyny, pointing to the eroticized function of Spyres as Curley’s wife (she’s never given a name) in the story. But that is a non-starter, unless one is fixated on the cause—as much as Lenny and George, the woman is seduced by the American dream—in her case, fantasies of becoming a Hollywood movie star. Choat intimates in her program notes that Of Mice and Men is relevant because of the current economic downturn. But it is not necessary to anchor great literature in the here and now; the work stands on its own, whether the real estate market is flush or not.
Still, Choat and the Moonbox production team have done a valuable service by reminding us about the Great Depression, a time when a job, even one as physically demanding or dead-end as that of the migrant worker, did not invite condescension. Composer Dan Rodriguez provides a score that sounds the appropriate notes of dread, effectively predicting the inevitable, dark climax to the lullaby of the American dream.