High Standards

Beowulf Alley Theatre turns in an impeccable 'Of Mice and Men' production

One way or another, it's the scene with the dog that usually gets you in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

Detractors complain that it's a heavy-handed foreshadowing of the story's final scene; impatient, plot-obsessed readers and spectators complain that it's an unnecessary diversion from the main storyline. Those of us disinclined to argue with Steinbeck's choices can't help squirming, as Steinbeck hoped, at the sight of an elderly ranch hand losing his one true companion--a stinky, decrepit old dog--as it is led out to be euthanized (that is, shot in the back of the head). This comes fairly early, and the old ranch hand is only a secondary character, but the moment is the one that triggers some of our most intense feelings about the story.

And it's the scene with the dog that illustrates almost everything that's good about Beowulf Alley's Of Mice and Men production, directed by Glen Coffman.

Mostly, it's an intense moment for fairly minor characters, and here, it illustrates how well-cast this show is from top to bottom. Gregory Sweet, as the old one-handed hand named Candy, doesn't have much to do here other than reluctantly acquiesce to the call to have his useless old dog killed, but in this scene (as elsewhere), his performance is low-key but focused, and he doesn't fall into a crusty-old-country-folk caricature. Nate Weisband as Whit argues against killing the dog with great empathy, but not a sentimentality that would be alien to ranch and farm workers. Brian Wees as Slim, the story's voice of reason, looks on uncomfortably without being able to come up with a logical objection. All the while, Jonathan Hicks as Carlson argues for putting the smelly, arthritic dog to death without turning into the callous, sneering cardboard figure this character usually becomes.

And then there's the dog himself--the role is double-cast, but on opening night, I think the canine actor was Buddy, the golden/lab mix--heartbreakingly mustering what little enthusiasm he has left as he's led out of the bunkhouse on what he mistakenly believes will be a pleasant after-dinner walk. When even the dog proves capable of such a subtle (however inadvertent) touch, it's no wonder that the audience can't even be heard to exhale during the long moment that follows, waiting--with the characters--for the shot to be heard.

The entire production has been assembled with similar quiet care. The acting tends to be subtle and anti-melodramatic, yet heartfelt; the pacing is deliberate, yet never feels pokey. All in all, Beowulf Alley does a fine job of rescuing Of Mice and Men from its low status as required reading in high school English and an inspiration for lots of cartoon parodies. (No, the "real" Lennie never says, "Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?" But his obsession with rabbits does make perfect sense when he's portrayed as a big, dumb dog in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.)

In case you nodded off in high school somewhere between The Pearl and The Grapes of Wrath, I will remind you that Of Mice and Men is not really about killing dogs; it concerns two itinerant laborers in the 1930s. Lennie is an overgrown child, mentally slow but physically powerful; he doesn't know his own strength. Watching over him on their travels is George, a relatively savvy man who perhaps would rather not be saddled with Lennie but has over the years established a strong if sometimes overstretched bond with him. Unlike other bindlestiffs who wander from job to job, squandering their meager income as they go, George and Lenny have each other for companionship, and therefore, they can imagine an independent future together, however difficult that independence may be to achieve. Really, their future is just a story that George repeatedly tells Lennie, but without that story, without George to tell it and Lennie to hear it, they would have hardly anything at all.

Alas, Lennie innocently bumbles into trouble wherever he goes, and he bumbles into the biggest trouble of his life just as the two men seem about to achieve their dream.

Terry Erbe as George and Stephen Elton as Lennie waste little time in establishing their uneasy fraternal bond onstage, and they also quickly set themselves apart from actors who have played their roles in film adaptations. Elton finds more in Lennie than just a big, retarded oaf; he's basically a 4-year-old, with a child's full range of emotional complexity. Erbe doesn't play George as a fast-talking operator; he's a somewhat rough, common man with common sense, and a little knot of decency that, to his surprise, has been bunching up inside him over the years.

Perhaps Elton isn't quite big enough to be a traditional Lennie, and Erbe certainly isn't small enough to be a traditional George, but this neatly serves to emphasize how well-paired these two unlike characters really are. Indeed, I could imagine Elton and Erbe trading roles from one performance to the next, each finding something rather different but always essential in whichever part he played.

The rest of the cast--including David Alexander Johnston, Tim McKiernan and the single-named Darwin--is as fine as the players already mentioned. My one small reservation concerns the good and versatile Amy Erbe as the woman whose actions precipitate the final tragedies; in the context of this production, I would have expected her to make more of her character's loneliness, even at her most flirtatious.

As usual at Beowulf Alley, the set design (Courtland Jones), sound (John Marbry), costuming (Kyle Schellinger) and lighting (Russell Stagg) meet high standards--the standards set by this production's acting and direction.

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