It is often noted in "Of Mice and Men" that migrant workers tend tobe loners. That makes the symbiotic team of scrappy, parentalGeorge Milton and hulking, mentally stunted Lennie Small a raritythat draws suspicion from the other ranch hands in John Steinbeck'senduring, dusty, downbeat drama.
Solitary drifters are the opposite of theater folk, who depend oneach other in this most collaborative of arts. That interconnectionamong performers is particularly evident in the production "Of Miceand Men" at Palm Beach Dramaworks, an exceptional display ofensemble acting under J. Barry Lewis' deft direction.
Long before odd couples became a staple of stage and screen,Steinbeck created two iconic characters who cling to each otheragainst the world. They also cling to the unlikely dream of buyinga farm, settling down, growing crops and -- of particular appeal tothe child-like Lennie -- raising rabbits.
George, Lennie and their remarkable friendship in the face ofadversity are at the center of "Of Mice and Men" to be sure. But itis the secondary characters that sketch in the community ofDepression-era "bindle stiffs," their quiet desperation, resilienceand unapologetic racism that make the tale timeless and a window ona bitter period in our history.
While one of our great novelists, Steinbeck is hardly a naturaldramatist. His few bits of shared narration seem forced, much ofthe onstage symbolism comes off as obvious and George's moments ofbunkhouse lyricism belie their literary roots. Nevertheless, thissaga of foreshadowed doom is so compelling, we are easily drawn in,pulling for these hapless souls.
Heading the cast is Dramaworks regular John Leonard Thompson("Candida," "American Buffalo") as George, a wiry bantam with apragmatic streak and a sense of the inevitability of Lennie landingthem in trouble.
It is easy to see why Lennie is dependent on George, but Thompsonshows us how George depends on Lennie to keep their distant dreamalive.
Inevitably, perhaps, it is Brendan Titley, making his Dramaworksdebut as Lennie, who dominates the production.
He says little -- though more than George wants him to -- as Titleyskillfully takes us inside the feeble-minded giant's head as hestruggles for understanding.
The actor radiates a gentle, childlike quality, but never allows usto forget the character's brute strength.
With much less stage time, many cast members forge strongimpressions.
Dennis Creaghan is a standout as grizzled, maimed farmhand Candy,as old and broken down as his swayback dog.
Betsy Graver plays the only woman on the ranch, not even worthy ofa name, known only as Curley's wife.
She is newly wed to the boss's son and already flirting brazenlywith the migrant workers. In her second act scene with Lennie, wesee she too has a pipe dream -- Hollywood stardom.
As Crooks, W. Paul Bodie ("Master Harold ... and the boys") bringsdignity to the role of the one black worker, yet another outcast onthe farm.
The play calls for three distinct locales, which Michael Amicocaptures resourcefully with a unit set of rough-hewn wood andcorrugated metal. It works well in tandem with John Hall's lightingdesign, particularly the searing shafts of sun and shadow hecreates in the second act.
"Of Mice and Men" is a very Dramaworks play, the sort of serioustheater that most other companies shy away from, with a sizeablecast that fits the Brown Theatre comfortably.
It is rendered with a toughness we have come to expect from thecompany, and is always a pleasure to encounter.
'OF MICE AND MEN'
Where: Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach.
When: Through Nov. 10.
Tickets: $60. Call 561-514-4042.
The verdict: Steinbeck's classic tale of itinerant farmhands andtheir unlikely dreams, performed with unflinching power by anaffecting ensemble.
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
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