Walking out into the snow-plowed parking lot near Woodford Theatre on Sunday, I couldn’t help retroactively wishing for a production like Joe Ferrell’s Of Mice and Men when I was reading Steinbeck in high school.
Ferrell’s thoughtful direction and rock-solid performances by an ensemble of veteran actors powerfully demonstrate why this classic is a classic.
In other words, it is everything it is supposed to be and yes, more.
Todd Pickett’s rustic set design and John Holloway’s nuanced lighting make the most of the ample stage, bringing to life the Salinas River bank and the nearby ranch where George and Lennie, the show’s main characters, travel to find work.
Set in what Ferrell describes as the “dispiriting, dark, dehumanizing Depression of 1936,” the play follows the itinerant laborers as they try to keep themselves modestly fed and clothed by working tough labor jobs like digging cesspools and bucking barley.
Most men of their ilk travel alone, but George and Lennie travel as a pair, with George looking out for the developmentally disabled Lennie, a large, well-meaning, instantly loveable fellow who is obviously “not bright.” Lennie loves animals, and, specifically, to touch anything soft, but his compulsion has a history of backfiring because he doesn’t realize how his own strength and simple, overzealous enthusiasm can harm or even kill the things he loves the most.
Walter Tunis, who is a contributing music writer for the Herald-Leader, pulls all the heartstrings in his role as Lennie, radiating innocence, openness and a simple, overt yearning to love and be loved. His childlike fixation with the pair’s daydream to “live off the fat of the land,” and particularly his fixation with his potential role as the caretaker of the rabbits they dream of keeping, is an aching reminder that everyone longs for a purpose and a place to belong, a longing that palpably haunts almost every character in the play.
Even though George (Kevin Hardesty) says otherwise in his ponderous opening monologue, he derives comfort, companionship and meaning from his relationship with Lennie. Yes, life would be easier without Lennie, but would it mean as much?
Hardesty — in his second Of Mice and Men production as George, under Ferrell’s direction — owns his character’s rural accent as confidently as if it were his own, a striking contrast from Hardesty’s polished eloquence that audiences have seen in his Shakespearean roles and other works. His George might be fluent in the hyper-masculine speech and social posturing of the era’s working poor, skills that are critical for his and Lennie’s survival, but he is a good man with an honest, courageous even, conscience.
It is no surprise that Hardesty, one of the area’s longtime leading actors, delivers a command performance, but it is refreshing to witness him getting the chance to cut loose with the ensemble as opposed to having to “carry” a show. In fact, the ensemble’s ability to interplay fluidly is no doubt the show’s greatest strength.
It allows for the long, tense, silent pause from Tim Hull (who plays the boss’s son Curley) when his character discovers his dead wife (Courtney Waltermire) in a barn, before he turns into a whirlwind of rage and revenge. Organic moments like these are what elevate the show from solid to stellar.
A curious effect I experienced during the show was a kind of jarring sensation in relation to the language and manners of the time. The 1930s slang of poor laborers is coarse and guttural; and watching someone casually refer to drowning puppies can really rattle my 21st-century sensibilities. That’s a good thing. Theater should rattle you sometimes. It made me realize how truly tough life was during that time and how we are not that safe from such hardships ourselves.
A beautifully rendered, heart-wrenching production, Of Mice and Men is the first don’t-miss play of 2016.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
‘Of Mice and Men’
What: The Woodford Theatre’s production of John Steinbeck’s classic.
When: 8 p.m. Jan. 28 (date added to original schedule), 29, 30, Feb. 5, 6 and 2 p.m. Jan. 31, Feb. 7.
Where: Falling Springs Recreation and Arts Center, 275 Beasley Dr., Versailles.
Tickets: $20 adults, $13 students