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.