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Reviewed by:
  • Of Mice and Men, and: Of Mice and Men
  • Jeannie M. Woods
Of Mice and Men. By John Steinbeck. Directed by Adrian Hall, assisted by Matthew Earnest. Resident Ensemble Players. Thompson Theatre of the Roselle Center for the Arts, Newark, DE. 28 February 2009.
Of Mice and Men. By John Steinbeck. Directed by Michael Patrick Thornton. Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago. 2 May 2009.

The monumental economic disaster of the last year has raised the specter of the Great Depression in America, so two productions of John Steinbeck’s poignant 1930s novella, Of Mice and Men, held special resonance for audiences this theatre season. The legendary Adrian Hall (founder of Trinity Repertory Theatre in Rhode Island) directed the first production with the Resident Ensemble Players (REP) in Newark, Delaware. The second production was a Steppenwolf for Young Adults offering at the venerable Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago, directed by Michael Patrick Thornton (artistic director of the Gift Theatre Company of Chicago). While the acting was uniformly polished and nuanced in both productions, the directors found greater challenges in meeting the demands of the 1937 stage adaptation, with all its disparate locales and stylistic shifts.

Both acting ensembles excelled in capturing the essence of Steinbeck’s heartbreaking fable of the American dream. Although the Steppenwolf actors necessarily stood in the shadows of the highly acclaimed Steppenwolf production of 1980 (starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise), the current ensemble offered finely crafted interpretations by Paul D’Addario as George and Keith Kupferer as Lennie. Robert Brueller gave a gritty, well-grounded performance as Carlson, and Jessie Fisher (Curley’s wife) and Richard Henzel (Candy) were other notable standouts in a fine cast. The REP’s production was part of the inaugural season of this professional, Equity company at the University of Delaware. Here, the acting was equally polished and moving, rooted in the finely tuned and touching performances of Michael Gotch (George) and Mark Corkins (Lennie), who created so tangible a bond of friendship and mutual need that spectators were compelled to sit on the edge of their seats. Equally effective portrayals [End Page 626] by other members of the cast—most notably Mic Matarrese (Slim) and Cameron Knight (Crooks)—complemented these performances.

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Keith Kupferer (Lennie) and Paul D’Addario (George) in the Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of Of Mice and Men. (Photo: Peter Coombs.)

Although each production was effective in its own way, there were significant differences in how directors Hall and Thornton tackled the challenges of the seventy-two-year-old script. As staged by George S. Kaufman, the 1937 dramatization had three acts and four major changes of scene, including scenes at the river and interiors of the bunkhouse, hay loft, and stables. The script, like the novella, is highly naturalistic. Thornton wisely conflated three acts into two (with an intermission) and, with scenic designer Courtney O’Neill, took a minimalist approach to realizing the locales so that actors and stage crew could quickly transform the space with generic set pieces and props. Hall made an even bolder choice by condensing the three acts into one—an extremely intensive and climactic act—which ran for 110 minutes, utilizing a clever unit set designed by Stefanie Hanson.

Hall’s production was particularly effective because it achieved the delicate transition from theatricalism to naturalism and, finally, to Steinbeck’s expressionistic turn at the end of the story. From the authentic dialects and physicalization, to the tight ensemble work, to the extremely workable unit set and period-specific props and costumes, Hall completely realized Steinbeck’s world on the stage. Hall prepared spectators with a lobby display of a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and period-style handouts of writings from the era. As we entered the theatre, we saw a crumpled curtain of muslin drawn across the scene, leaving a narrow strip of wooden planks downstage. Hall used this simple curtain to project a video of an FDR fireside chat, followed by other stills and videos of a tap-dancing Shirley Temple and heartbreaking images of Depression-era America—all presented with a background of haunting period music. The final preshow image...


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