Of George and Lennie
It will probably take you less time to read John Steinbeck's classic "Of Mice and Men" than to sit through the stage version currently playing at the Theatre Banshee in Burbank. But don't let that dissuade you from catching this solid production, which features several exceptional performances of laconic beauty and smoldering emotion.
Using a script that Steinbeck adapted from his own book, the production adheres to the original story line, which should be familiar to anyone who has passed eighth-grade literature. George (Andrew Leman) is a migrant farmworker traveling through the Depression-era Salinas River Valley with his constant companion Lennie (Sean Branney), a mentally impaired giant who has a fondness for petting soft things like mice, rabbits and, fatally, women's hair.
The odd pair finds work on a farm populated by about 10 different flavors of tragic masculinity. Curley (Josh Thoemke) is the arrogant boss who pushes around George and Lennie, while Slim (Mark Colson) serves as the calm voice of reason. Meanwhile, Candy (Barry Lynch) befriends the recent arrivals and the three of them make plans to buy their own farm.
"Of Mice and Men" tells a simple story about dreams deferred and the necessity of friendship in pitiless times. The cast, which also includes Gary Appel and Tomas Boykin, brings a lean efficiency to the play. There's hardly a wasted movement in the entire production, which makes the emotional intensity of the later scenes feel that much more honest and sincere.
Directed by Rebecca Marcotte, the play can feel rather conventional and unadventurous at times. If there's something new to be said about Steinbeck's story after nearly 70 years, you won't find it here. This production is interested in faithfully re-creating the author's words and characters, not breaking new ground.
The play climaxes with a conversation between Lennie and Curley's lonely wife (Annie Abrams) that goes horribly wrong, resulting in an inevitable chain of violence. The brutality is powerfully ambiguous a gunshot in the dark that can be interpreted as an act of cruel justice or perhaps an expression of merciful compassion.
Reviewed by David Ng for the Los Angeles Times
On the page, John Steinbeck’s 1937 play may seem predictable, but given a production as eloquent as this one, predictability segues into tragic inevitability. Also, it was a delight to see so many teenagers in the audience enraptured by this staging. The tale of huge Lennie Small (here played brilliantly and movingly by Sean Branney), whose massive strength overpowers his limited mental capacity, can only lead to a doom that we anticipate with dread. Lennie is obsessively drawn to small, soft animals, but his brute physical power makes his affectionate caresses accidentally lethal. His loyal companion, George (Andrew Leman), tries vainly to keep Lennie out of trouble as they racket along from job to uncertain job as ranch hands, but when Lennie encounters the boss’s pretty, blonde, flirtatious daughter-in-law (Annie Abrams), the outcome can only be catastrophic. Steinbeck’s play depicts the strong, loving, unequal friendship between George and Lennie, and presents an indelible picture of Depression-era life in racially segregated rural California. The ranch hands are depicted with respectful sympathy: the elderly, one-handed Candy (Barry Lynch); the tough, knowing mule-wrangler Slim (Mark Colson); and the crippled black man Crooks (Thomas Boykin). They, and the fine supporting cast, are expertly led by director Rebecca Marcotte on David Robkin and Arthur McBride’s atmospheric unit set.
Reviewed by Neal Weaver for the LA Weekly
Mice and Men Played with Aplomb
While they scour the globe for great stories, Theatre Banshee producers proclaim that they specialize in the plays and playwrights of Ireland. So it was with some consternation that I attended their latest offering, on St. Patrick’s Day weekend of all times, John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
Could there be a more American writer than Steinbeck? Well, turns out the writer’s parents are of Irish and German descent. But more fitting for the Banshee are the themes of this excellent play dreams on the edge of attainment and human decency in the face of harsh reality.
Chances are you read “Of Mice and Men” in school or at least saw references to its main characters, George and Lennie, in various Looney Toons cartoons (“Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?”).
To refresh your memory, uptight George and his lunk-headed friend Lennie are on their way to a new ranch job outside of Salinas, Calif., circa 1932. They had to flee the last job in Weed because Lennie, who has a penchant for soft, fluffy things, roughly handled a young woman there.
George is constantly worried that Lennie’s going to mess up again before they can “build a stake” and earn enough money to buy a place of their own. Their interactions with the gritty ranch hands (and one delicate girl) moves this story to its tragic end while at the same time serving up a feast of literary sustenance in the form of Steinbeck’s masterful depictions of life in Depression-era western America. The story is a classic. So did they do it justice? For sure.
First-time Theatre Banshee director Rebecca Marcotte does a fine job creating a unique tone and definite sense of place. Probably due to her experience as an actress (she played the knife-wielding activist mom in Banshee’s “Loyal Women”), Marcotte seems to value the creation of distinct characters, allowing each of the 10 men and women to create a rich, unique person.
Andrew Leman as George and Sean Branney as Lennie make a phenomenal team. Leman is a taut wire of nerves and concern and exasperation. Branney creates a lovable, Baby Huey sort of Lennie. He puts his physical stature to good use appearing unnaturally strong but clumsy. But I would have liked to see him be a bit less cartoony and a bit more threatening.
Of particular merit is Barry Lynch who gives the one-handed Candy a humor, depth and poignancy not seen in the others. And Mark Colson looks straight out of Central Casting as the iconic Slim. Josh Thoemke plays an amusing Curley, a little guy with dukes always up, ready to fight. And Tomas Boykin is wonderful as the African-American outsider, Crooks. Be aware that the “N”-word is flung around fairly recklessly in this play perhaps one of the reasons “Of Mice and Men” has been on the Most Challenged Book List for years.
For such a small stage, the sets were fairly ambitious with more scene changes than a usual Banshee production. David Robkin and Arthur MacBride did a great job evoking the feeling of a Salinas Valley ranch. The costumes by Lauryn Otten really helped flesh out each character. Along with the sets and costumes, the music created a real sense of place from the hillbilly music while the stage is black to the sumptuous incidental music composed by Troy Sterling Nies.
“Of Mice and Men” is in fine hands with the actors, director and crew at Theatre Banshee. While I believe this acting troupe is capable of any kind of play, Steinbeck’s work does reflect Irish sensibilities. The play is full of hard-working people in harsh circumstances, following a dream, trying to be decent to their fellow man and looking for a laugh in the middle of it all.
Reviewed by Lisa Dupuy for the Burbank Leader/Glendale News-Press
Classic Steinbeck Brilliantly Renewed
Required reading lists in high schools across the country include it, countless stage productions have been performed using the text, and it has seen several silver screen incarnations starring such heavyweight actors as Burgess Meredith and John Malkovich.
But at a small black box theatre in Burbank, John Steinbeck’s slim novella, Of Mice and Men is being handled with such care that the oft-told tale seems like a brand new dramatic gem.
The story of Lennie Smalls (Sean Branney) and George Milton (Andrew Leman), two wandering migrant ranch hands who work hard and dream big, is distinctly Californian and the folks at Theatre Banshee create a location that feels entirely authentic.
The men show up at a ranch in Soledad at the outset of the play, after having had a bad run of luck at their previous job in Weed. It turns out the bad luck came at the hands of the hulking, mentally challenged Lennie, whose attraction to soft things finds him innocently stroking a woman’s dress and being accused of sexual misconduct. Though George is frustrated with Lennie’s dim-wittedness, he is inextricably bound to the big guy by brotherly love and fear of loneliness.
One of the duo’s favorite past-times is a joint day-dream in which they own a ranch of their own and live off “the fat of the land.” Lennie’s favorite part of the imagined scenario is his role as rabbit tender, a job he longs for daily. Because the dream requires funding, the men arrive in Soledad ready to sweat.
A seemingly simple bunch of characters serve as Lennie and George’s co-workers, including the compassionate, hardworking Slim (an arresting Mark Colson), and the kindly, one-handed old rancher, Candy (Celtic Arts Center regular Barry Lynch, at his absolute finest).
It seems like George and Lennie will be able to work up a stake in Soledad without much incident, until we meet the boss’s cocky, fight-seeking son, Curley (Josh Thoemke) and Curley’s hot-to-trot new bride (Annie Abrams), who is all eyelash bats and hip sways. The young buck and his bride amount to a whole lot of trouble for Lennie, who gets into hot water without even trying.
The play is full of social commentary and themes of human isolation. While all the hired help share halfway decent sleeping quarters on the ranch, Crooks (Tomas Boykin) is relegated to the barn because he’s black. Thus, audiences are confronted with the tyranny of racism, the desperation of the Depression-era working class and a whole lot of other oppressive forces in society, not the least of which is the suffocating role of the picture perfect wife.
Not a moment of this layered text is lost on director Rebecca Marcotte, who demonstrates a deep respect for Steinbeck’s message of trampled dreams and lonely lives.
The actors likewise get major kudos for bringing huge doses of compassion and authenticity to their roles. Leman has all the compact meanness required in playing George, but he also knows how to reveal loving angst and shameful fear like a pro. Lynch commands attention every moment he’s on stage, possessing that rare knack that elicits tears and laughter simultaneously. Abrams is seductive as Curley’s wife, but she also understands that her character is mostly just a lost little girl.
Perhaps the most outstanding acting work comes from Branney, who plays Lennie with such childlike simplicity that it’s hard to believe he actually had to memorize lines for the part.
The best-laid plans of any theatergoer should include a trip to Theatre Banshee to see what it looks like when small theatres dare to dream big.
Reviewed by Amy Lyons for the Studio City Sun
Steinbeck's Golden West Shimmers on Small Stage
John Steinbeck’s adaptation of his 1937 novella has become a staple for theatres and schools interested in staying close to American mythology and the serious business of re-telling the history of our country, especially California and the Golden West. Rebecca Marcotte, recently an award-winning actress for her superb performance in “Loyal Women” at Theatre Banshee, now takes control as director of the Steinbeck classic, proving she can handle itinerant males as well as fiercely defiant women, with the same kind of gusto and excitement. Both “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) deal explicitly and implicitly with the search for the American Dream in the midst of the Great Depression. Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Mouse”, dating from the late 18th Century, possibly inspired Steinbeck’s title and concept: “…The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley (..often go astray), And leave us naught but grief an’ pain for promised joy…” There, summed up is the theme of the play, which opens with the gentle giant, Lennie, who loves to pet soft things, petting a dead mouse. Sean Branney, a superb theatre man, whom we’ve not seen act before, becomes, before our very eyes, a remarkable Lennie, as soft and sweet as he’s large and lost. There’s such sadness in this lumbering child/man that though we find ourselves laughing at Lennie’s antics, we are weeping inside for the ineffable sadness of his tender soul and undeveloped brain. Lennie, of course, travels the labor trail with George (a sufficiently harassed and testy Andrew Leman), who looks out for his friend and traveling companion, despite the inconvenience of what has become his burden. Fine work between these two makes the play work, even after the viewing of numerous stage and film productions.
In the mix are the tough guys who provide the itinerant labor on the ranch, at short pay and under stringent conditions. Barry Lynch as Candy, the old one-armed ranch hand, is a familiar character on Banshee’s stage, even though he’s no longer the Irish drunkard we know and love from several of Branney’s productions; he’s always a treat. Mark Colson as the mule skinner, Slim, is a treasured voice of control and calm in a boisterous, forgivably cruel world. Boss (in a well-tempered performance by Steven Robert Wollenberg), and his cruelly vicious son, Curley (a tightly wound Josh Thoemke), preside over the toughminded laborers with steel-toed boots, and give no quarter. Curley’s new wife (a luscious Annie Abrams), with unfortunately soft, strokeable hair, who wants to be ‘in pictures’ is at the heart of most of the disaster, but the American Dream that has spurred George and Lennie on to have a little place of their own, with rabbits takes the biggest pounding. Gary Appel and P.J.King make up the bunkhouse squad; Tomas Boykin is outstanding as the black cook, Crooks; he has two super scenes that make their own blatant statement.
Marcotte’s spare, hands-off, heart-on direction, on David Robkin and Arthur MacBride’s simple, effective set, aided by Michael Mahlum’s excellent lighting, and Lauryn Otten’s costumes (minus Andra Carlson’s sometimes clownish make-up), add up to another Banshee-worthy event.
Reviewed by Madeline Shaner for the Park LaBrea News