SALT LAKE CITY — When I hear the name John Steinbeck, my mind immediately flashes back to my high school days and reading books that were incomprehensible to me in my limited teenage experience. I had trouble finding heart in the stark setting of Great Depression America. Friday night brought the heart of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to the forefront, leaving little doubt as to the brilliance of his writing or the talent of Pioneer Theater Company’s cast and crew.
At first glance of, scenic designer, James Noone’s set I was bewildered. As I took my seat before the show I tried to puzzle out where the rest of the set was. My experience at Pioneer has often been one of elaborate and beautifully heavy set designs. Examining a stage where the lights were barely hidden by the scant, earth toned, stage dressing was altogether unusual. I was left wondering as the lights dimmed.
The actors entered from the wings for the prologue bringing no more color to the stage than the set. Dry browns and tans of ranch hands and farmers in the 1930’s. Following the prologue the stage was set for the entrance of Lennie (Mark David Watson) and George (Joe Tapper) to a small clearing. Entering, Lennie kicked up dust crossing the dirt covered stage to drop to the ground and drank water from the river (the river being a simple container of water below the stage level). Noone’s subtly in design immediately began to work for me. As the dust slowly settled through the beams of light like sun rays, I began to find myself pulled into the reality of this world.
While George sets up camp the audiencee quickly learns that he and Lennie are traveling to their next job on a new farm following an unknown incident at their last place of employment. George talks down to Lennie as he would a child. Constantly reminding him how much better his life would be without him. Lennie, being slow of mind, simply apologizes. They travel together, an odd occurrence, in a time when men mostly looked out for themselves. Despite loathing his companion George seems to have a brotherly concern for the man. While coaching Lennie on how to act on their first day, George scolds him for carrying around a dead mouse. A mouse that was killed by a prodigiously strong Lennie simply trying to pet it.
The next morning the pair arrive at the new farm to raised eyebrows. Between a pair of men traveling together and Lennie’s sheer size the other ranch hands are baffled. However, George’s quick tongue and Lennie’s childlike manner win just about everyone over except the boss’s son, Curley (Patrick Halley). Curley, suffering from a serious “little man complex,” immediately feels threatened by the large and silent Lennie. Placing both Lennie and George on thin ice from the start. As the story progresses the ranch is slowly changed. Men who previously cared only for themselves find a common bond in caring for the innocent Lennie. Events unfold and men’s lives are changed by this seemingly unremarkable man. Glimpses of hope appear.
While the story seemed to me to be remarkably predictable even though I had never read Of Mice and Men), that didn’t take away from the drama of the tale one bit. While I may have realized the direction the characters were heading I still felt fear at being a witness to the impending action. A sensation I attribute to the direction of Mary B. Robinson. Walking the fine line of good pacing in a drama, Robinson gave due diligence to scenes that demanded the time and kept the rest of the show running smoothly.
The sparse set, the plain and functional period costumes, the carefully timed lighting, the talented supporting cast all fell into a beautifully simple package. One that highlighted the most important part of any show, the story. The story about George and Lennie. I have to take my hat off to both principal actors for their brilliant performances in this production. Each played their part remarkably well and more importantly played off each other well. But my favorite performance goes to Joe Tapper’s George. Tapper portrayed this smart, good looking, man’s man that had been reminded what it was like to feel in a world that had forgotten how to. His ability to show those raw and conflicting emotions of a man living contrary to his instincts was wonderfully done.
The brilliance of this show was best seen in the finale. A moment shared between Lennie and George. The framing, blocking, lighting, the performance . . . it all had me shaking with anticipation. It brought me to tears. This was a fantastically executed show about the hearts of men and how fragile they really are. Thank you to the cast and crew of Pioneer Theater Company for a great evening of theater.