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.

Charming and Challenging Sabrina Fair Amuses and Educates

Sabrina Fairchild, daughter of the chauffeur of the powerful Larrabee family, has returned home (a beautiful courtyard designed by Joey Lorincz) after a 5 year stint in Europe.  Her purpose in coming home is to find out if she is in love with David, the younger son of the Larrabees, but meets her intellectual equal in the Larrabees’ older son, Linus.  The journey to find which son will win her heart is the central plot of Sabrina Fair opening tomorrow at the Bellevue Little Theatre.

On the face of it, it seems a rather simple story, but Samuel Taylor’s script is actually a complex, sophisticated piece of work for the early 1950s.  Taylor bravely challenges the social strata of his day with his writing.  He lived in a time where the rich had their domain, the common people had theirs, and never the twain would meet.  Women were relegated to a secondary status, expected to marry and kow tow to their husbands.  That Taylor would take on this class system and that he would do it through the voice of a strong woman was certainly a bold and daring move.

Taking this message and communicating it in a non-preachy, entertaining way is a difficult task, but director Sonia Keffer does an admirable job doing just that with her well balanced cast.  Ms Keffer’s direction paints a vividly multi-layered picture that is charming, sweet, thought provoking, even a little melancholy.

Mary Trecek is splendid in the title role of Sabrina Fairchild.  Described as shy and mousey before she appears on stage, Ms Trecek’s Sabrina is anything but as she roars onto the stage with a lovely energy and confidence, showing how much the character has been transformed by her 5 years away.

Ms Trecek has created one of the most well rounded characters I have seen on stage in quite a spell.  Her Sabrina is caring, thoughtful, a romantic.  In short, she has the best qualities of the ideal woman of that era.  But she is also intelligent, strong, confident, and determined.  Sabrina wants to live life on her own terms and infect people with the same zest as she possesses.  Yet, in a profound moment, she realizes, “I’ve changed over the past 5 years, but the world hasn’t”.  It doesn’t dampen her faith, but she realizes that she cannot force the world to go on this journey with her.  All she can do is leave the door open and hope the world will follow.

I can’t remember the last time I was so completely blown away by a performance as I was with Will Muller’s interpretation of Linus Larrabee, Jr.  The trick with Linus is that he is a bit of a prick, but has a heart of gold.  As the force behind the successful Larrabee empire, Linus is a guy who does what he pleases and does not care what the world thinks of him.  But he is also fiercely loyal to his family, will do what he believes to be right, and actually is looking for love.  He’s just so used to having to be strong that he doesn’t know how to be vulnerable.  Muller brilliantly walks that tightrope of Linus’ character and expertly peels off Linus’ layers until we see the real man underneath and he does it all with a sardonic half-smile that says more about Linus’ views on life than the dialogue.

Phyllis Bonds is given a remarkable opportunity with the role of Julia Ward McClintock.  I suspect “Aunt” Julia serves as the voice of Taylor himself.  Having been reared in the world of the wealthy, Ms Bonds’ Julia is the character who notices that the times are definitely changing and that the world should not adhere to the class system that it embraced at the time.

Tonight’s performance showed that Ms Bonds has certainly laid the groundwork for a masterful bit of acting.  Julia has some of the best dialogue in the play with her witty zingers and observations and Ms Bonds certainly had a grasp on that wordplay, but she needed a bit more zip to her verbal pitches.  Once she cranks it up a few notches, this is going to be one gutbusting performance.

Janet Macklin and Paul Schneider play the heads of the Larrabee family, Maude and Linus Larrabee, Sr.  I believe these characters are meant to represent society’s thinking at the time as Ms Macklin’s Maude, while likable, is most definitely a snob.  Maude definitely believes that the rich and common folk should remain separate and thinks Sabrina has entrapped her dear little David into marrying her after “having a taste of the high life” in Europe.  But, perhaps echoing Taylor’s own hope that society could change its thinking, Ms Macklin also gives Maude an open-mindedness as she is willing to admit that maybe her thinking is wrong and accepts Sabrina once she has decided between her two boys.

Schneider’s Linus, Sr. also demonstrates this belief in the class system as he is vehemently opposed to the idea of his son marrying the chauffeur’s daughter, but is at least willing to let his son choose his own course.  Schneider also does a fine job serving as the play’s comedy relief as Linus, Sr. is quite a bit of a doddering, old man who forgets names, people, and events (even if they occurred only a few seconds ago).  He even has a most macabre hobby in that he enjoys attending funerals.

Larry Wroten’s Fairchild (Sabrina’s father) serves as an amusing mirror image to Schneider’s Linus, Sr.  Through Fairchild, Taylor takes a beautifully satirical shot at society’s mindset because Fairchild also thinks the rich and the common should not mingle because it would be an insult to the commoners.  I thought Wroten’s performance was a bit wobbly, probably due to opening night jitters.  At points he was laugh out loud funny and, at others, he seemed to lose confidence and sureness of his interpretation.  Another night or two and I think the kinks can, and will, be worked out.

Dan Whitehouse brings a boyish innocence to David Larrabee.  Whitehouse’s David is an incurable romantic.  He falls in love at the drop of a hat and has been divorced, at least once.  But he is also indicative of a changing societal mindset as he doesn’t care about finding someone wealthy.  He wants to marry for love, whether that person is an heiress or a humble daughter of a chauffeur.

The night’s performance did have a few flaws.  The pace was sluggish, especially in the first act.  Cues needed to be tighter.  Volume needed increasing and there was some uneven acting in the supporting cast.  With that being said, I have every confidence that these flaws will shortly disappear and this lighthearted, but deep, comedy will fulfill the great potential it presented tonight.

Sabrina Fair plays at the Bellevue Little Theatre from May 1-17.  Showtimes are Friday & Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  The Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 W Mission in Bellevue, NE.  Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and TAG members, and $9 for students with a valid student ID.  Reservations can be made at 402-291-1554 between the hours of 10am-4:30pm Monday-Saturday.