Having your writing end up on every high school syllabus is a dubious honour. On the one hand, your place in literary history is assured. On the other, your work risks death by overexposure. John Steinbeck is one of these writers. Force fed to everyone in high school, the Californian master is too easily overlooked. But then, sitting in the McPherson Playhouse on a balmy evening last week, you’re hit with this: “Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”
Like his other works, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is run through with casually arresting truths. These philosophical underpinnings, coupled with his marvelous gift for dramatic pacing and dialogue make his books perfect fodder for the stage.
Armed with this bounty, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre has created an evocative production with real emotional punch. Director Brian Richmond tells the story of Lennie and George with an unwavering compassion. Despite its status as an instant classic, Of Mice and Men has attracted considerable controversy since its publication in 1937. It has been banned repeatedly in American schools because of its racial slurs and for allegedly condoning euthanasia. But even in our politically-minded age, Richmond stays admirably true to the text. During the interval, I overheard a couple of theatre-goers remarking on their difficulty with the offensive language (despite enjoying the production). It’s a relief that Richmond cleaves to authenticity, rather than catering to our modern sensitivities.
In the pivotal role of Lennie, Gary Farmer delivers a naïve joy and tenderness, the perfect counterpoint to the fearsome physicality that is so central to the character. As he blunders around the stage, a child in a man’s body, we feel compelled to protect him — from the brutality of the society around him, but also from himself.
As his offsider George, David Ferry is a blustering dynamo, desperate for a break and scared to indulge in the dreams he’s sculpted for his friend. Of Mice and Men is about prejudice and hardship, but at its core is a story of male friendship and the importance of these understated bonds. Ferry and Farmer give us a wonderfully genuine portrayal of an unlikely but thoroughly believable friendship.
Their supporting actors are uniformly terrific. In the pivotal role of Curley’s wife, Samantha Richard is two parts Vivien Leigh, one part Kirsten Dunst; her voice struggles to fill the theatre but she’s saucy enough to get away with it.
Ian Rye’s set is a wondrous thing. Giant wooden beams evoke houses, while sparsely furnished rooms feature authentic period fittings. You can almost smell the manure outside Carlson’s (played by the excellent Michael Armstrong) room. For the most part, Rye’s sets sit comfortably unnoticed — this is a play that lives and dies on its dialogue, but at the climax of the play his artistry is effectively thrust front and centre.
To stage a play about hard times in the United States is certainly timely, but then Steinbeck’s themes always seem remarkably relevant. This production is a real joy — as evidenced by the standing ovation on opening night. Go and see it and then go and read the book again — damn, read all of them! He’s just that good. M
Of Mice and Men is playing at the McPherson Playhouse until Sun., July 15.
Tickets at rmts.bc.ca
By Varnya Bromilow