Director – Melanie Mason
Co-Director/Dramaturg – Dennis Maher
Stage Manager – Bethany Doolin
Set Designer – Tony Curtis
Lighting Designer – Bryan Stevenson
Sound Designer – Jordana Abrenica
Costume Designer – Meredith Hinton
Properties Designer – Wendy Wester
Scenic Artist – Shelbie Mac
George – Elias Taylorson
Lennie – Van Quattro
Candy – Kit Hussey
The Boss – E. Scott Arnold
Curley – Parker Fitzgerald
Curley’s Wife – Nikki McDonald
Slim – Gabriel Whitehurst
Carlson – Eugene Chandler
White – Gregory Alan Cooke
Crooks – Dennis Raveneau
Reviewed Performance 10/27/2013
Reviewed by Ashlea Palladino, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
What do you value more in a writer, creativity and invention or personal life experience? It’s said that all fiction is based somewhat on fact though it was Theatre Arlington’s Of Mice and Men that brought my initial question to bear. One of my best-loved novels, She’s Come Undone, focuses on the life of a tormented teenage girl though it was written by a forty-something man named Wally Lamb. Each time I read this book I am amazed at Lamb’s ability to write a character so completely even though he obviously hasn’t walked a single personal mile in her fictional shoes. Conversely, John Steinbeck wrote what he knew and the result is almost more impressive in that, while reading his classic novella, my mind is creating scenes of the Salinas Valley in California and the dusty dirt roads Steinbeck may have himself walked during the Great Depression.
Like many of us, I read Of Mice and Men in junior high school, along with The Grapes of Wrath and some of his short stories like The Chrysanthemums (my absolute favorite piece from Steinbeck). During my brush up reading and preparation for this review, I discovered something I never knew about Of Mice and Men: Lennie was a real person whom Steinbeck met at one of the ranches on which both men worked. Circling back to my question about writers insinuating their personal experiences into their stories, this revelation that Lennie was a real person just took me farther and deeper into Theatre Arlington’s top-notch production.
The curtain was slated to rise at 2:00 pm but a series of unfortunate events kept an actor from the stage for an additional thirty minutes. Waiting inside the theater for this extended half hour offered me nothing to do but look at the set and listen to the sounds of crickets, a running stream and the occasional cheep of a bird. These sounds were so subtle and real, I found myself dozing at the comfort they provided. Sound Designer Jordana Abrenica provided a wonderfully calming and authentic soundtrack at all points of the show. Her gunshot cues were well-timed and I had no trouble hearing any of the actors’ lines.
The opening scene, when George and Lennie decide to rest under the stars before walking the rest of the way to the ranch the next morning, set the visual tone for the entire show. Shelbie Mac painted the backdrop scenery with verdant, rolling hills and Lighting Designer Bryan Stevenson supported the time of day by focusing a soft pinkish hue on the portion meant to reflect the evening sky. Mr. Stevenson threw in creative lighting touches throughout the play that added to the authenticity of the scenes. My favorite illusion was when he mimicked the flames of a campfire by reflecting dancing orange light onto George’s face. What a beautiful effect.
Set Designer Tony Curtis wowed with the enormity and proportion of this set. The primary piece was a mammoth, low platform on casters that could be turned 90 degrees for one vignette, or 360 degrees for another pair of adjacent vignettes. For a couple of the scenes, the main platform was rolled offstage with only an end piece remaining that showcased a tree and some boulders and high brush. The set changes weren’t quick and watching half a dozen able-bodied men and women struggle with moving it around the stage further proved its solid mass.
With regard to the vignettes themselves, due attention was paid to every detail. The towering, rough hewn planks used to frame the bunkhouse, barn and Crooks’ quarters were laid symmetrically and aged to perfection. The bunks were built and stacked very nearly to scale and each was covered with a scratchy, wool blanket. Various garden and ranching implements, many of them rusty, were hung from the bunkhouse wall lending credibility to the maturity of the structure. Crooks’ quarters were similarly appointed with tools of his trade tacked to the wall and period bottles of liniment in his footlocker. Kudos to Properties Designer Wendy Wester for her contributions as well, as the set was perfectly matched to the story in every detail.
One of my theatrical pet peeves is seeing actors dressed in ill-fitting ensembles. There seems to always be that “tall guy in the back” whose pants are three inches too short. Costume Designer Meredith Hinton experienced no such issue with this cast, for all of her choices matched the height and build of these actors with absolutely zero flaws. Granted, most characters wore denim jeans or dungarees but I was also struck by how individual each man looked, even amongst the group as a whole. Curley was easily identifiable because of his leather vest and single glove as was Slim with his ordered and tidy work shirt, denims and cowboy boots. Curley’s Wife cut a lovely figure in her printed, flouncy dresses and period pumps.
Theatre Arlington amassed a wonderful ensemble of actors and Director Melanie Mason led them with a relaxed equanimity that reflected the beauty of the piece. A couple of the actors revealed affectations that were likely contributed to their individual interpretations of their characters, though these mannerisms were repetitive and distracting at times (Curley’s Wife’s constant ankle bends and Lennie’s propensity to speak through clenched teeth are examples). Even with these very minor notes, this cast exceeded my expectations in bringing Of Mice and Men to life.
E. Scott Arnold, Eugene Chandler and Gregory Alan Cooke, as The Boss and ranch hands Carlson and Whit, performed admirably. Each actor was integral to several scenes and they ably supported the other actors in processing the action.
Gabriel Whitehurst was a joy as Slim, the jerk line skinner who supervises George and Lennie’s team of workers. Slim managed a natural, easy authority over his men which earned their respect in return, and even the respect of Curley to some degree. Mr. Whitehurst’s relaxed demeanor and reliable air solidified his supervisory position: he provided the calm during periods of storm.
Nikki McDonald portrayed Curley’s Wife with a wily combination of youthful naivety and flirtatious minx. I was at alternate times angry with her character for putting the ranch hands in such a sticky position, but also understanding of how lonely she must’ve been in the company of her tyrannical husband. Mrs. McDonald skillfully played the flirt and also seemed genuinely interested in befriending Lennie.
Speaking of the domineering brute, Parker Fitzgerald solidified his persona as the bad guy within syllables of his first lines. One of the best things about this production was the very specific physical casting and Mr. Fitzgerald epitomized this commitment to the original work with his diminutive size and oppressive ruthlessness. I didn’t find a lot of deep emotion underpinning his line delivery but he acted truly terrified when Lennie attacked him in the bunkhouse.
The character of Crooks plays further into the themes of isolation and loneliness. Unable to mix with the other hands inside the bunkhouse after dark, Crooks, played deftly with antagonism and ire by Dennis Raveneau, keeps to himself in his quarters while his feelings of inequity bubble to the point of combustion. Mr. Raveneau was so committed to his character’s physical infirmities that he even limped and slouched during the darker scene changes. His facial expressions and gestures made him slightly intimidating, even with his limp, but those same expressions and gestures made him vulnerable as he cowered from Lennie. I was especially moved by the symbolism of the scene in Crooks’ quarters when the ranch hands decided to go into town. While the white men went out in search of liquor and women, the black man stayed behind with the old man and the dim man.
Kit Hussey played Candy with dignity and respectability as we watched his character evolve from an emotional place where he didn’t have much to live for to his being excited about a possibility with endless potential. Mr. Hussey managed that range with enthusiasm.
The production photos are what drew me to want to review this play, mainly because of the physical differences between the leading actors, Elias Taylorson and Van Quattro. I couldn’t think of two actors more suited for these roles and I’m thrilled to report that their performances eclipsed my initial hopes.
Mr. Quattro is well over six feet tall and his height, combined with his rugged good looks, lent him complete credibility when issues of his brute strength were relayed in the play. His hands were constantly rubbing and petting invisible silks and mice and puppies, continually reminding the audience of Lennie’s favorite things. His manifestation of Lennie, this gentle giant, was consistent through the duration of the show which is important because Lennie is the only character who doesn’t undergo some type of transformation or change until the last scene. As much as reviewers complain about an actor being “one note,” I appreciated it with Mr. Quattro’s performance because it remained true to the author’s original characterization of Lennie. And this is not to say that there wasn’t emotion imbued in his performance, for he aptly portrayed eagerness, excitement, and fear when necessary.
It’s hard enough for an actor to lead a show, but doubly difficult when his character is bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. As George Milton, Elias Taylorson was the strength and the spine of this production. I imagine one of the most difficult tasks for a stage actor is not rushing all of his lines to keep the pace and the action of the story moving along. This was obviously not a worry for Mr. Taylorson who delivered each line with accuracy and a serene ease that can only come with years of experience. I thoroughly enjoyed all of his mannerisms, from shaping and forming his hat or crouching down on his haunches to stoke the campfire, to flipping playing cards on the small bunkhouse table. George is written as a short-tempered but loyal friend to Lennie and Mr. Taylorson captured all of the emotions that come along with caring for someone who can’t care for himself: the flares of frustration, the resentment and the coming back full circle to the understanding and acceptance of responsibility.
I’ve read Of Mice and Men, I’ve seen the movie starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, and now I can proudly say I’ve seen a masterful stage production of this American classic. Thank you to Theatre Arlington for taking such fantastic care of this somewhat controversial piece.
OF MICE AND MEN
305 W. Main Street
Arlington, TX 76010
Runs through November 10th
***Not recommended for young audiences due to some strong language and thematic elements.
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday - Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday
matinee at 2:00 pm.
Tickets are $22.00 and $20.00 for students and seniors. Student rush tickets are available five minutes prior to show for $5 with a valid student ID.
For information and to purchase tickets, go online to www.theatrearlington.org or by calling the box office at 817-275-7661.