May 6, 2019
Reviewed by Malena Eljumaily
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is an important part of the American canon of literary works. Cloverdale Performing Arts Center’s production of this classic will be a comfort to those who know the story and a pleasant discovery for those who don’t. This production proves how powerful live theater can be.
It’s 1937 and for migrant workers like George Milton (Rusty Thompson) and Lennie Small (Martin Gilbertson) the Great Depression is far from over. They’ve come to the Salinas Valley to work on a ranch and try to save up some money. It’s a simple plan, but as the poet said, the best laid schemes . . .
These downtrodden characters are soon introduced to a motley troop of equally marginalized outsiders who’ve managed to carve a place for themselves at the ranch. They learn the ropes from Candy (Robert Zelenka) who lost his hand some years ago and now can do little more than sweep up around the bunkhouse and fuss over his smelly old dog.
They soon meet the Boss (Steve Thorpe) who seems all right and a few of the other ranch hands, including the muleskinner Slim (Chris Johnston). George takes an instant dislike to Curley, played with just the right sense of entitlement by Connor O’Shaughnessey. George can smell trouble there even before he learns that Curley has a new wife (Crystal Carpenter Wilson) who likes to flit around the ranch ostensibly looking for her husband but more practically looking for trouble.
Director Beulah Vega has done a great job casting and directing these men, so that each has a distinctive look and personality. Dan Stryker as Carlson takes a leading role in dealing with Candy’s mutt, and Austin Schmidt shines in his telling of how things work at the cathouse. Out in the barn is Crooks (Isiah Carter), away from the others because he’s black. Carter plays Crooks as a man who carries every injustice of his life on his bent back.
Of course, there’s a plot, but more significant are the relationships that exist and develop through the story. The most important, of course, is that of George and Lennie. George is resigned to his role as caretaker to Lennie’s simplistic, though inadvertently destructive, walk through life. Rusty Thompson’s George is a kind man, and though he complains about being stuck with Lennie, we can see he truly cares for his friend. Martin Gilbertson performs Lennie as a genuine person, slow and sweet, rather than a cartoon simpleton.
Curley’s wife, as the only female in this testosterone-laden atmosphere, is like a beautiful butterfly fluttering in a briar patch. Or maybe a fragrant flower among the weeds would be more apt, since she wears so much perfume she always leaves a hint of herself behind wherever she floats. For better or worse. Crystal Carpenter Wilson plays her as more cluelessly selfish than scheming. She’s a young women who has discovered her power over men and uses that to make the best of her unhappy situation.
In her director’s notes, Beulah Vega emphasized the hope that permeates this play. But that’s just one of the many themes of this seemingly simple, though ultimately complex story. Of course, this is a tragedy and all the clues are there from the beginning how this tale will end. Having spent an evening with these characters, it’s hard not to feel a personal loss at the end. I almost want to cry now thinking back to the dramatic ending. That’s how resonating live theater, when done well, can be.
Cloverdale Performing Arts Center
201 Commercial St, Cloverdale, CA
Photos by Katherine Randall
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