Cursed Are the Meek

It’s a story of friendship and the American dream.  George and Lennie are itinerant workers hoping to save enough of a stake to get a small piece of land to build a small house, plant a vegetable garden, have some pigs, and build some pens for chickens and rabbits.  On the cusp of achieving that dream, a tragedy threatens to end it once and for all.  This is the story of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

Steinbeck’s novel is one of the great classics of American literature touching on numerous themes such as the class system, hope, dreams, perseverance, self-pity, and frustration.  The theatrical world benefited from Steinbeck’s decision to translate the novel into a play as only his unique skill was capable of bringing these themes to life with powerful dialogue and subtle foreshadowing.  The play is indicative of its time due to its talky nature, but Steinbeck’s talents make each monologue a gripper from beginning to end.

In the 20 years I’ve been involved with theatre, this play ranks within the top 5 that I’ve reviewed.  I give hearty congratulations to Brandon McShaffrey and his cast and crew for their sensational work with this show.

McShaffrey’s direction is an awe-inspiring piece of work.  He has probed every tiny nuance of the script and brought it to glorious life through the work of his cast who execute each moment with the precision of a finely tuned military squadron.  Each member of the cast has such presence and stays involved in the action of the play with pieces of business that ring true to their characters.  Even more impressive is the fact that the cast had only 10 days of rehearsal and somehow have polish and pizzazz that surpass shows with a proper rehearsal period.

Every performer shines at one point or another, but particular notice goes out to Tyler Breeding who breathes ugly life into Curly, the violent, bullying son of the ranch owner whose itch to pick a fight at the drop of a hat only increases with his jealous possessiveness of his new wife.  Josh Bernaski, as the tough, but kindly team leader, Slim.  Bernaski does need to slow down his delivery, though his excellent diction still kept him understandable.  Shonn McCloud as Crooks, the bitter, black ranch hand who hides a decent heart.  McCloud’s fine sense of timing led to some of the show’s more humorous moments.

In supporting roles, Dan Coons soars as Candy, the one handed ranch hand looking for some hope.  Coons’ body language show a man who leads a sad and lonely existence, yet is given one last chance for redemption when he is allowed to share in George and Lennie’s dream.  Lisa Egan Woods nails all the right notes as Curly’s unnamed floozy of a wife as she attempts to flirt and seduce the ranch hands to assuage her own loneliness.

Ultimately, this show succeeds or fails based on the work of the actors who play George and Lennie.  McShaffrey’s casting of Kyle Downing and Jeremy Proulx helped to make this show a rousing success.

Downing’s George is the proverbial everyman.  He has nothing more than a dream for a place of his own and a safe haven for Lennie and he pursues it relentlessly.  Downing’s animation is a thing of beauty and he changes emotional beats on the turn of a dime.  Whether he’s gleefully sharing his story of their future home, charmingly ranting about being saddled with Lennie, or steadfastly trying to get Lennie to remember items crucial to their survival, Downing is simply a joy to watch.  His final scene with Lennie bursts with an emotional power guaranteed to haunt you.

Proulx’s talent is a rare one, indeed.  His command of body language and gestures is unlike any I’ve ever seen in his interpretation of the gentle giant.  Lennie is actually the play’s most tragic character.  A childlike innocent who lacks the wisdom to handle his fearsomely strong body.  Proulx well communicates Lennie’s simpleness with subtle hand gestures and a spot on delivery.  Although Proulx’s delivery hits the marks on intention, he does need to be careful not to sacrifice diction for sound as his speech was mushy at several points.  As tragic as Lennie is, he also is the play’s most inspiring character as his good nature brings out the better qualities in those around him.

The play’s technical aspects were also bits of mastery.  Tricia Hobbs’ bunkhouse set has a poignant fragility about it.  Shon Causer’s lighting design was some of the best I’ve seen as the lights subtly and surely showed the passage of time from day to night and back again.  Jacob Kaufman’s sounds immensely aid in the immersion of the audience into the play.

This is what theatre is all about.  Of Mice and Men both entertains and educates.  It may make you rethink a thing or two about your own life and that is the power of a good drama that needs to be seen by one and all.

Of Mice and Men plays at Maples Repertory Theatre through July 17.  Showtimes are 2pm on June 25, 28, 29 and July 3, 9, 12, 17 and 7:30pm on July 2, 8, and 16.  Tickets cost $27 for the main floor and $22 for the balcony.  For tickets, contact the box office at 660-385-2924 or visit the website at www.maplesrep.com.  Parental discretion is advised due to some strong language and a few scenes of violence.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

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