ARLINGTON Most every American who ever attended high school is familiar with Of Mice and Men, the sad tale of George Milton and his mentally challenged companion, Lennie Small, who try to make their way in the economically and, often, socially hostile environment of the 1930s. But, with this play, the fact that we know what is coming never diminishes the devastating impact of its final scene.
Theatre Arlington’s production has a great deal going for it, beginning with a host of fine performances. Elias Taylorson, as George, and Van Quattro, as Lennie, carry the show — as they must. Both are fine actors and, although I am not sure these are the ideal parts for either one of them, they set their courses early on and never stray from their compass points.
They receive a considerable amount of help from the supporting players. Kit Hussey is highly affecting as the maimed and desperate Candy. And Dennis Raveneau delivers the goods as Crooks in a role that reminds us how far ahead of the curve Steinbeck was in taking on racial issues.
Especially outstanding is Nikki McDonald, as the coquettish character we know only as “Curley’s wife.” The first act of this production is inexplicably flat, but her late entrance lights up the stage and gives the proceedings a badly needed injection of life. The striking redhead is perfectly cast, and costumer Meredith Hinton gives her a fittingly retro look.
Speaking of the look of the show, Tony Curtis’ sets are beautifully rendered and highly clever in terms of how they are wheeled around to change the setting. There is one scene change that is a bit too long and involved, but, overall, the sets are impressive.
But although most of the acting and visual elements work well, the direction by Melanie Mason is problematic. When she directed the musical Annie at this theater last season, every decision seemed right. With this one, I never stopped second-guessing her.
The biggest sticking point is in Taylorson’s interpretation of George. He lacks the hard edge that we usually find in this character that makes it clear why he is as much of a misfit as Lennie. There should be much more of a contrast between George and Lennie than we get here.
McDonald’s performance wins on sheer presence, but it is not properly measured. In her first appearance, when she should be sultry and defensive, Mason allows her to be weak and hysterical. The rhythms of her role are all off.
There are also too many places where the show becomes slow and stagnant because of a lack of imagination in the blocking, and there are a couple of moments of physical violence that could be staged much more effectively.
Finally, the oddest thing about this production is that the supposedly rough-and-ready ranch hands with whom George and Lennie work are the most immaculately groomed and coiffed cowboys you have ever seen. Most of them look like they are preparing to pose for GQ instead of “buckin’ barley” — the primary task on this spread. Their perfectly trimmed beards, squeaky-clean clothes and modern haircuts are unintentionally comical in the show’s context.
There are many laudable aspects of this production. The second act is much better than the first, and it is interesting to see how, in our times, this show becomes more of an examination of what to do about the impoverished elderly than about the mentally disabled.
But we know this story so well that the bar is set enormously high for any production of it. And while this one is good (Steinbeck does receive the respect he deserves), it is not quite as great as we want it to be.