Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2008

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

- Robert Burns

When Of Mice and Men was first published in 1937, it was termed a “novella” – a little novel – and it was, but anyone familiar with the theatre could see in an instant that it was merely a play rendered in prose. John Steinbeck structured it that way in an attempt to create a new literary form that could be read or performed. The novella is written in six chapters, each of which Steinbeck saw as an act in a three act play. His experiment makes for great prose and great drama (he ultimately collaborated with George S. Kaufman, the great “Play Doctor,” on this stage version) but his hybrid creation never caught on.

There is very little difference between what Steinbeck published in 1937 and what NYSTI is performing in 2008. You could, literally, read along from the novella. Steinbeck’s genius carries the action along, and NYSTI’s wonderful company of performers brings his characters vividly to life.

George Milton (David Bunce) and Lennie Small (John Romeo) are a couple of bindlestiffs (migrant ranch workers), down on their luck like everyone else during the Great Depression. Lennie is mentally disabled, and George is his care giver in every sense of the word. They travel together and George looks out for Lennie, who, as George says “ain’t bright, but he’s a heck of a worker.” Lennie is sweet tempered and gentle, but he is also tremendously large and physically strong. When we meet them they are on their way to a new job bucking barley at a ranch near Soledad, California. Their last job ended badly when Lennie got into a misunderstanding with a local girl.

Life is rough for George and Lennie, but they have each other – other characters comment frequently how unusual it is for workers to travel together – and they have their dream of saving up and buying a small farm of their own. Lennie has the mental capacity of a young child, and like a child he loves to hear his favorite story over and over again. He and George both know it by heart, and its recitation brings them both comfort, hope, and a sense of stability.

I highly recommend reading Robert Burns’ poem To a Mouse, from which Steinbeck took his title, in its entirety. Here is a link to it both in the original and in a “modern anglicized” version for those who find Burns vernacular hard to read. (And I hasten to add that this poem was penned by the “real” Robert Burns, not the fellow I’m married to!) Steinbeck was inspired by the whole poem, not just the lines or the verse that contains them. Burns, like Steinbeck, is writing about the futility of so much of life. Whether you are in a wandering, disorganized state, like George and Lennie, or completely organized and ready for the winter like Burns’ “mousie,” there is no security.

I was a bindlestiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. He's in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks.

- John Steinbeck quoted in The New York Times, December 5, 1937

At this ranch, run by a stern but fair-minded Boss (David Baecker), George and Lennie make friends with the elderly one-handed Candy (Joel Aroeste) and Slim (Eric Rose), the jerkline skinner (the main driver of a mule team). Their other bunkmates – Whit (Aaron Marquise) and Carlson (Ron Komora) – are pleasant company. Crooks (Kevin Craig West), the disabled black stable buck, warily allows Lennie into his room for a rare interracial visit. But the Boss’s son Curley (David M. Girard) and his wife (Mary Jane Hansen) are nothing but trouble.

It is notable that Steinbeck gives only his protagonists real names. The lone female character, poor “Curley’s Wife,” isn’t even accorded the dignity of a nickname. As in the novella, the other characters are all seen through the filter of George and Lennie’s experience.

Bunce and Romeo are excellent in the leads. They are suitably “Mutt and Jeff” shaped, and each creates a fully-rounded character. While George is mentally more capable, he needs Lennie to justify his existence as much as Lennie needs him for the basics of life. Lennie gives George a purpose for being, a fact that makes the ending twice as tragic.

West and Rose also turn in excellent performances. I was struck by West’s refusal to look at Curley’s wife when she boldly invades his room (he has a private room because no one will bunk with a negro), and I realized that I was seeing the reverse side of the situation depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, set in 1935, where Tom Robinson pays with his life for being simply being kind to a white woman rather than refusing to speak or look at her.

Rose plays Slim as a true hero, and is very appealing in his performance. You wish with all your heart that his viewpoint, not Curley’s, would prevail, but that is impossible. Girard makes an excellent bad guy – there is something inherently off-kilter about his performance style – and he is in his glory here.

Aroeste’s performance is a bit too enthusiastic. I expected him to morph into Yosemite Sam any minute – and he played Candy’s handicap poorly. Young Marquise was also to “stagey” and over enthusiastic in his portrayal of Whit. I found it impossible to believe he’d ever clapped eyes on the interior of a Cat House, let alone one of its denizens. But these two play minor characters, and Aroeste is able to tone his performance down when it really matters. Keep an eye on him during the minutes following the death of Candy’s dog.

While Mary Jane Hansen is a strong performer, I wish that NYSTI had delved into their strong pool of interns and college students and selected a younger actress. Steinbeck makes it clear that Curley’s wife is about 16, which explains her naivety, impulsiveness, and self-centeredness. She is a teenager, poor thing, completely unequipped to handle the situation in which she finds herself. Hansen understands the character and plays her nicely, but she cannot help but look like the grown woman she is.

Victor Becker has designed excellent dark and spartan sets which evoke both the vastness and dryness of the California desert, and the claustrophobic confines of the communal life of strangers. They are dramatically lit by Matthew E. Adelson. My only complaint about June Wolfe’s costume design is the array of outfits she has created for Hansen. During the Depression no ranch hand’s wife, even the boss’s son’s wife, would have had a different dress for every day, and giving her such an extensive wardrobe makes her situation seem less dire than it is.

Will Severin has compiled an evocative string of Depression Era ballads – most of them written by Woody Guthrie – which play before the curtain rises and during intermission. Listening to them helps set the scene and keep the audience in that 1930’s frame of mind.

While NYSTI presents "Family theater" this is not a show for children. Director Ed. Lange knows that this play is a tragedy, and he’s directed it as such. I can’t think of a play with a more deeply tragic ending. At the final curtain, the audience I attended with didn’t dare clap – even though they knew the show was over – because, while the performers deserved acclaim, the on-stage situation at the final curtain was nothing to celebrate.

The New York State Theatre Institute production of Of Mice and Men, runs through November 9 in the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the campus of Russell Sage College, off of Division St. between Front and First Streets in Troy, New York. The show runs two hours with one intermission. As is always the case with a NYSTI production, this show is intended as educational theatre and is recommended for children in grade 9 and up. Call the box office at 518-274-3256 between 9-4 p.m. for tickets and information. (If you are calling within the hour before show time the box office number is 518-244-6888.)

For more information on this production I recommend picking up or clicking through to the NYSTI Study Guide (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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