George and Lennie have a simple dream. They just want a piece of land of their own where they can grow some vegetables, tend some rabbits, and live life as they please. On the cusp of realizing that dream, the ground suddenly threatens to fall away from under their feet with the most cataclysmic reality. This is John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men currently running at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Reviewing this show is a true pleasure as it is not only the best show I’ve seen this season, but also the best local show I’ve seen in the past few years.
I’m truly grateful that Steinbeck chose to translate his classic novel to the stage himself as I do not think any writer would have been able to properly communicate his ideas and themes as well as he could. What made Steinbeck’s writing so beautiful is that he was able to present an incredible amount of themes and power, but kept it wrapped up in a relatively simple story. At its heart, this is a story of friendship and loyalty, but Steinbeck also introduces themes of greed, poverty, infidelity, hope, frustration, love, and racism. And he presents these ideas through ordinary, realistic conversation.
A great work needs great direction to properly relay the story to an audience and Ablan Roblin’s direction is a piece of art. Rarely have I seen such skillful handling of a dialogue driven play. Roblin keeps the words energized and moving. He never allows the scenes to become static as he inserts just enough movement and animation to keep them lively and real. His understanding of the turns and twists of the plot allows him to make sequoias bloom from the tiniest moments. And the coaching of his cast is championship caliber. Each actor is fully aware of her or his function and utterly confident in his or her abilities. This allows them to come together as a whole and create something that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
There isn’t a weak link in this cast, but some exceptional performances from the supporting cast include Donte Plunkett as a broken, acerbic ranch hand forced to live separately from his working class brethren due to the color of his skin; Mallory Vallier as the lonely, man-hungry wife of The Boss’ son, Curley; and Nick Zadina as the tough, but level headed bunkhouse leader, Slim.
Dennis Collins has a powerful turn as the one handed ranch hand, Candy. Collins well essays the loneliness and feelings of uselessness of this character. He’s an older man approaching the end of his days, barely able to work due to his missing appendage, and friendless except for his beloved hound. The utter joy Collins displays through his eyes and inflection when he is allowed the opportunity to share in George and Lennie’s dream is a true treat for the audience.
Josh Peyton’s handling of George is so effortless that it almost doesn’t seem like he’s acting. One can actually feel his bond of brotherhood with Lennie and all that entails. Yes, you can see George’s love for Lennie as he cares for him and stands up for him, but you can also really feel his frustration at the difficulties of caring for Lennie. Peyton’s emotional choices with his words and body language are always spot on and he is especially compelling when he has to make a crucial decision about Lennie in the play’s final moments.
I was leveled by Tony Schik’s portrayal of Lennie. It is truly a revelatory performance that’s certain to place him in the running for the Playhouse’s prestigious Fonda-McGuire Award. He is so utterly believable as the simple, childlike man whose intelligence and maturity is incapable of handling his incredible strength. Shick brilliantly communicates Lennie’s essence with a slack jaw, veiled eyes, constant excited giggling, and a delivery that shows that Lennie really has to think about what he wants to say before he can say it. You can’t help but love this big kid, yet ache at the fact that his immaturity and unpredictability make him hard to handle, though life is certainly never dull with him around.
Jim Othuse has crafted another winner with his bunkhouse set. It is exactly what it needs to be: simple, dilapidated, but functional for working men. His lights enhance the moments from darkening at climactic moments to the night sky in the opening scene. Darin Kuehler’s props add to the effect with his bunk beds and authentic bales of hay. John Gibilisco’s sounds strongly support the work with sounds of ranch hands talking and the clink of horseshoe playing. Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are perfect from the elegant dress of Curley’s Wife to the rich clothing of The Boss to the gear of the ranch hands and the poor, common clothing of George and Lennie. An original score by Timothy Vallier helps to sweep the audience into this world.
John Steinbeck was truly one of America’s greatest writers and this is one of his finest works. It may not be the feel good play of the year, but it could very well be the best play of the year.
Of Mice and Men plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through March 17. Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $40 ($24 for students) and can be obtained at the OCP box office, online at www.omahaplayhouse.com, or by calling the box office at 402-553-0800. Parental discretion is advised due to some strong language and a few scenes of violence. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.
A late night party between a pair of couples begins civilly. As the couples continue to imbibe, old wounds and frustrations begin to manifest, resulting in a hideous game of oneupsmanship between the older couple that threatens to tear both pairs apart. This is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? currently playing at the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre.
Edward Albee had a real talent for revealing the unsavory underbelly of humanity. And he does it so subtly and with a tragic poetic beauty. What starts out as good natured jabbing between an older couple while hosting a young couple transforms into something much darker as the ripostes and reactions become a little more cutting and a bit more brutal. Suddenly the younger couple gets dragged into the tidal wave of verbal sewage until the disaster hits its peak. Then it drains slowly away and under all the bilge is still a touch of hope and beauty.
Gordon Cantiello does quite superlative work with his direction. He makes wonderful use of the theatre in the round space with highly animated staging which allows the actors to keep up the energy of the show and play to all sides of the theatre. He also thoroughly did his homework on this piece as he understands the numerous twists, beats, and climaxes of each scene and has his insanely talented cast play them to perfection.
Delaney Driscoll rules the stage as Martha. Ms Driscoll’s Martha is truly a vile piece of humanity. At one point she says she wears the pants in the family and that’s certainly true as she rules with a iron fist. She derives a sadistic pleasure out of torturing her husband with vicious comments about his failures and embarrassments or just simply ogling and seducing the young new faculty member visiting their home while guzzling booze and snacking on liquor soaked ice cubes.
Ms Driscoll’s presence defies belief and fills the entire theatre as she charmingly essays a bag of human misery. And yet, she still is able to make you feel a bit of sympathy towards her when you finally understand what fuels her vicious behavior.
Brent Spencer gives a nuanced, well-balanced performance as George, Martha’s husband. The best way to describe Spencer’s George is if Machiavelli were a spineless weakling. Nobody with an ounce of self-respect would put up with the abuse with which Martha subjects George. Not that he’s a wimp. He can give as good as he gets with his verbal shots and Spencer’s understated delivery allows him to spout insults that leave people wondering if they have just been zinged. But when he’s pushed too far, watch out!
When this worm finally turns, he does so with devastating effect. Spencer’s George gleefully develops horrific games such as “Get the Guests” and “Bringing Up Baby” to inflict maximum punishment on his wife and guests.
Mark Booker underplays Nick so beautifully. He is clearly the parallel to Martha as he is the boss of his family unit and also trapped in a unsuccessful marriage. Unlike Martha, he can be kind as he does defend his wife, Honey, from some of the verbal fusillade spewing from George’s mouth. My favorite part of Booker’s interpretation was how he slowly revealed the spiteful, vengeful side of his personality as he got further into his cups. This is not a man I would want to cross as he delivers double the punishment for every blow he gets. Not only can he stand toe to toe verbally with George, he unabashedly makes love to Martha just to twist the knife a bit further.
Katie Otten broke my heart with her take on Honey. She is the lone, wholly sympathetic character in the piece. Her ramrod posture indicates the constant level of tension she lives with and is only able to cope with copious amounts of alcohol. When she’s blitzed her real personality of a fun-loving, uneducated party girl shines through. Miss Otten’s Honey seems a poor match for her genius husband until the truth of their relationship is revealed.
One of my friends once described watching this show as the verbal equivalent of having the skin flayed off his body. That seems a rather apt description as the power of Albee’s words combined with a superior cast will take the audience along on a bitter, intense roller coaster ride that will leave you feeling beaten and wearied by the end. That feeling is further enhanced by the skillful sound effects of Doug Huggins as his noises buoy the show’s most powerful and key moments. It is not an easy show to watch, but it is enthralling.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues at the PART through Feb 17. Showtimes are 7pm Fri-Sat and 2pm on Sundays. Tickets cost $35 ($30 for seniors (60+) and $25 students. For tickets, contact the box office at 402-706-0778. Due to mature themes, the show is not recommended for children. The PART is located inside of Crossroads Mall next to Target at 7400 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.
Of Mice and Men Opens Feb 15 at Omaha Community Playhouse
Omaha, NE—Of Mice and Men will open Friday, Feb 15 at the Omaha Community Playhouse. The show will run in the Howard Drew Theatre from Feb 15-Mar 17, 2019. Performances wil be held Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.
Migrant ranch workers in California during the Great Depression, George–an intelligent, but uneducated man–and Lennie–a large man with the mind of a child–dream of making enough money to buy their own land. When a crime is accidentally committed, the two men are faced with a moral predicament in one of the most powerful and devastating stories of the 20th century.
Directed by Ablan Roblin, the play based on the critically acclaimed classic American novel by John Steinbeck explores the ultimate meaning of friendship.
Tickets are on sale now starting at $40 for adults and $24 for students ticket prices varying by performance. Tickets may be purchased at the Omaha Community Playhouse box office located at 6915 Cass St, by phone at 402-553-0800 or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.
Production: Of Mice and Men
Written By: John Steinbeck
Directed By: Ablan Roblin
Josh Peyton as George
Tony Schik as Lennie
Dennis Collins as Candy
Nick Zadina as Slim
Mike Leamen as Carlson
Steve Catron as Curley
Mallory Vallier as Curley’s Wife
Donte Plunkett as Crooks
Randy Vest as The Boss
Benjamin Battafarano as Whit
Caroline and Anthony are partners on a project analyzing the use of I and you in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. On the surface the two have little in common as Anthony is cheerful, laid back, and outgoing while Caroline is sickly, angry, and seems unable to communicate outside of social media. As they analyze Whitman’s poem, they begin to peel back their own layers to fully reveal each to the other and a friendship grows between them. . .and perhaps something far more. This is I and You by Lauren Gunderson and currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.
Lauren Gunderson has crafted something truly original with this play. It is a slice of life in its purest sense. The play eschews the normal narrative style. Instead it relies on a powerful sense of voice as the construction of the dialogue is purely conversational. There doesn’t seem to be a plot as the two characters engage in ordinary conversation. Yet through this conversation you see the bonds of friendship come into existence and strengthen. A nice touch to the story is how Ms Gunderson makes the two characters two sides of the same coin. Each is nearly a polar opposite in terms of personality, height, gender, race, and philosophies. In spite of these surface differences, one finds they have much in common as they slowly show their real selves to the other. The play also contains one of the most satisfactory endings I’ve seen in almost any show.
Barry Carman provides a very fine piece of direction to this work. His staging is of superlative quality as his actors stay pretty far apart from each other when the show begins to show the gap between them. But they physically move closer and closer to each other as their friendship grows. His understanding of the script is both deft and delicate as he knows how to get his actors to hit the beats just right so the discoveries always pop with surprise. Carman has also led his two performers to sterling characterizations.
Early in the show, the character of Caroline refers to herself as “small, but mighty”. However, small, but fierce might be a better descriptor. In the hands of Anna Jordan, the character is simply acting gold. Ms Jordan brings a real sense of anger, distrust, and determination to the role. Caroline suffers from a bad liver which has kept her a virtual shut-in for most of her life. Being cut off from the outside world has kept her away from a lot of joys in life. The nuances of face to face conversation elude her as social media is her primary means of communication. Pleasures like reading seem to be anathema to her as she’d rather google things. She’s resigned herself to being alone and dying young, though what she wants is to be out in the crowd and living life.
Ms Jordan’s physicality is tremendous as her anger manifests in her rigid, rodlike posture and body language. So ever present is her anger that this physicality is used even when she is having fun like dancing in her room which was one of the show’s highlights. As Anna loosens and opens up, so, too, does her physicality. Her movements become more fluid and culminate in a rocking air piano solo to Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”.
Jordan Isaac Smith keeps pace with Ms Jordan with his own excellent portrayal of Anthony. Where Caroline is tight and withdrawn, Anthony is completely loose and open. Smith’s physicality is almost gliding as he practically floats around the room, especially when he is gushing over the work of Walt Whitman. He gives a very convincing portrayal of being a good kid. He’s close with his family, gets good grade, and is popular. But he also does fine work in playing typical teenage behaviors such as his sheepish looks and delivery when he confesses to Caroline that he’s put off this project until the last minute.
Smith is equally skilled at playing the heaviness of Anthony as well as his lightness. Though Anthony is a pretty happy person, he does carry his own well of sadness that he slowly reveals to Caroline as their friendship grows.
Martin Scott Marchitto has designed a stellar set for this show. It truly looks like a typical teen’s bedroom. His set is further enhanced by the properties of Amy Reiner. Few can dress a stage like Ms Reiner as her properties of books, toys, records, computer, and furniture add to the messy, lived in quality of this room. Josh Mullady’s lights add their own brilliant life to the show. Especially impressive are his use of planetarium lights from Caroline’s toy turtle and the subtle transition from light to dark to light during a moment of awakening in the show. Molly Welsh’s sounds blend so smoothly into the show that you are sometimes unaware of their presence until powerful moments end and you realize the sound was adding to the moment.
The play’s narrative style may catch a few off guard as it doesn’t follow the ordinary path of a story, but its utter realism and naturalism are crucial to the unfolding of this tale. With sure and stable direction combined with a pair of potent performances, I and You is another winner in the Blue Barn legacy.
I and You plays at the Blue Barn through Feb 24. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm with the exception of a 6pm performance on Feb 17. Tickets are $35 for general admission and $30 for seniors. For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org. The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.