OF MICE AND MEN
WESTPORT COUNTRY PLAYHOUSE
An aching, desperate and even existential loneliness hovers over Mark Lamos' cool appraisal of John Steinbeck's own stage adaptation of his 1937 novel, Of Mice and Men, getting a handsome revival at the Westport Country Playhouse. Lamos stepped in as director when Paul Newman's illness forced him to withdraw, but the play turns out to be a perfect fit for the replacement helmer's tastefully spare, sensitive and unsentimental staging, making Steinbeck's story a sad poem for the American Dream..
Into this no man's landscape come two itinerant ranch hands: wary dreamer George (Brian Hutchison) finds himself inexplicably but instinctively in the role of protector to Lennie (Mark Mineart), a simple-minded hulk of a man who, in his efforts to find softness in a harsh and unforgiving world of Depression America, unknowingly does harm.
Hutchison balances the bitterness and hope that battles within everyman George, but doesn't quite make the underwritten case for his moral attachment to Lennie. Mineart plays the gentle giant with natural simplicity, never overplaying Lennie's limitations or power.
Steinbeck lays out the foreshadowing pretty thick and the repetition of themes and lines would even make O'Neill blush. Yet within this dramaturgical heavy-handedness Lamos lays out a parallel tone of quiet grace. It comes in simple gestures, as when an old man turns slightly in his bunk while waiting for his ancient and unwanted dog to be shot. At other times it's found in the moments of unnervingly long stillness where loneliness lives among these forgotten folk.
Literally across the street from MTC and on the same day, Of Mice and Men opened at the Westport Country Playhouse. The polar opposite of a small, intimate musical, this adaptation of John Steinbeck's classic novel nonetheless seizes on the time and place of its production to deliver a message of profound emotional resonance.
Just as it has become a part of everyday American life, economic hardship looms over Steinbeck's Depression-era tale. As we as a society turn away from the idea of "easy money," so too do George and Lenny. In its place, we see the notion of a man working hard for little thanks, thin solace in the brief respites of sin and the solitary struggle for survival. And though the play is ultimately tragic, Brian Hutchinson (George) and Mark Mineart (Lenny) deliver stunning performances that show us the awesome power of hope and compassion.
Just as MTC allows the intimacy of John and Jen to fit perfectly into its small space, the Playhouse allows the enormity of Steinbeck's work to reach its epic proportions. Portrayed with a brutal reality, the hard, physical production compels us to examine how we react to the events outside the theater. The magic here is in Mark Lamos' direction—so masterful that, like the scene changes, you do not see it happening, but it leaves you breathless.
And finally, in addition to the cold shower that has hit America's culture, Of Mice and Men comes at a particularly sad and reflective time for Westport and its playhouse. Playhouse and community patriarch Paul Newman was originally slated to direct. Known for a humanness that trumped his fame, Newman was honored with a prolonged standing ovation before the show—and honored again by a production that typified his natural compassion, sincere manner and love for meaningful, emotionally resonant theater.
American Theatre Web
The setting is in the depression-era past, but the themes of how man copes with loneliness, longs to fit in, fights to control his destiny and comes to grips with being human still are relevant in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men running at the Westport Country Playhouse.
Like the Robert Burns poem from which it borrows its title, the plot elucidates how the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. George (Brian Hutchison) tries to look after his strongman-bodied, but child-minded friend Lennie (Mark Mineart) as the two flee a lynch mob that's assembled after Lennie's attempt to touch a woman’s soft dress results in a cry of rape. They find work on a California ranch, where George tells his friend they’re better off than the other ranchers because they have each other and a future. One day they’ll buy their own place and if he behaves, Lennie will be able to tend the soft little rabbits.
The central performances are strong under the direction of Mark Lamos, who took over for Paul Newman, to whom the production is dedicated. Mineart is particularly poignant as the well meaning but non discerning Lennie and gives a characterization that glimpses the parallels between Lennie and Candy’s dog without overemphasis. Holliday embodies age, wisdom and humor in Crooks. Michael Yeargan’s dramatic, yet simple sets combine with Robert Wierzel’s lighting to create a realistic feel.
Steinbeck usually feels a little dated. This production, however, in the midst of current economic unease on Wall Street (where many from the Westport area work or have investments) leaves an uneasy feeling as present bank failures and past economic collapse mix a little too close for comfort. Some things, humanness and economic difficulties alike, don’t change much, it seems.
LAMOS MASTERFULLY DIRECTS 'MICE' IN PLACE OF THE LATE PAUL NEWMAN
Newman was originally scheduled to direct Of Mice and Men, so holding the playbill in my hand on opening night was bittersweet. Happily, another theater icon, Mark Lamos, stepped in to direct and delivered a riveting production that will long be remembered.
Lamos, a distinguished director who turned plays inside-out and upside-down as artistic director for Hartford Stage, Broadway, and opera, opted for a traditional presentation of
John Steinbeck's classic. With sensitive insight and perfectly planned pauses, this play is a winner. That creative force is a dream team. Michael Yeargan's set is stunning. Detailed realism shows off an orange and yellow sunset along a riverbank that fades into a pink and purple twilight in one scene. In another, the rustic interior of a bunk house fills the stage, and another scene fills the interior of a black man's barn.
The sets are bathed in soft lights created by Robert Wierzel and accented with tension-filled music by John Gromada. Everything denotes loneliness and solitude and works like a charm.
If the creative component of the production is a dream, it is accented with an even more wonderful cast. Playing the two dreamers caught in a no-win world for ranch hands during the Great Depression are Mark Mineart as Lennie and Brian Hutchison as faithful companion George. Lennie is as simple as he is strong. He doesn't know the power of his strength, so even though he is attracted to little soft mice, puppies, and women, he has a way of accidentally crushing them to death. After high-tailing it out of one town and one ranch, they arrive at another and even though George warns Lennie to stay out of trouble, it has a way of finding him. This time it's the ranch owner's son who is insanely jealous and his new wife that pose the biggest problems.
What works so well in this production is not so much the plot, but the loneliness that envelopes the characters in this play. They are hard-working men, loners who move from ranch to ranch seeking dreams that won't come true. From the get-go, we know that Lennie is doomed. The courage that George shows is something we are not prepared for.
In addition to these reviews you may also read interviews and articles about this production.