Undaunted by the dual challenge of staging 1962 Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s Depression-era drama, Of Mice and Men, while co-starring in it as circa 1937 migrant worker Lennie Small, popular Triangle actor and director Jesse R. Gephart scores a double triumph in Theatre in the Park’s 2011-12 powerful season-opener, which debuted last weekend and continues Aug. 25-28 and Sept. 2-4 in TIP’s Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre in west Raleigh, NC.
Lennie is a gentle giant with the mind and emotional volatility of a toddler going through the Terrible Twos; and Gephart plays him warts and all, with all his tics and twitches and handwringing. Essentially amiable and passive in interpersonal relations, Lennie is dangerous — even lethal — when he gets his dander up.
Lennie’s boon traveling companion and surrogate father is another itinerant ranch hand, a small wiry man named George Milton (played by Ryan Brock), who calms the waters that Lennie stirs up. George provides the brain and Lennie provides the brawn in their partnership.
The Mutt and Jeff pair of Ryan Brock and Jesse Gephart have great chemistry together; and they earn fervent audience approval as they flesh out the roles of George and Lennie as they arrive at yet another struggling California ranch, where George hopes that they can accumulate a stake to buy a ranch of their own. But trouble rears its ugly head almost immediately in the form of Curley (Samuel Whisnant) and Curley’s Wife (Page Purgar).
Curley is the spoiled, short-tempered SOB — son of the Boss (Randy Jordan); and Curley’s Wife is a lonely woman who hates Curley’s jealous outbursts, but repeatedly provokes him to throw hissy fits by flirting with the boys in the bunkhouse, who fiercely resent her frequent invasions of their heretofore all-male domain.
Page Purgar strolls through the bunkhouse and the barn like a strumpet on the prowl, while Randy Jordan struts and frets like a bantam rooster spoiling for a fight. Unfortunately, he unwisely picks the immensely strong but slow-to-anger Lennie for his personal punching bag.
John Honeycutt adds a poignant portrait of Candy, the aging one-handed swamper who keeps the bunkhouse spic and span; Jeffrey Nugent is a pistol as the feisty jerkline muleskinner Slim, who supervises the ranch hands and sees that the Boss’ every whim becomes a reality; and John Rogers Harris paints an indelible picture of the African-American stable-hand Crooks, who is banished to the barn because his white co-workers refuse to let him bunk with them. Matt Schedler and Jordan Westra also make excellent impressions in their cameo roles as two ranch hands named Carlson and Whit.
Director Jesse Gephart and assistant director Maggie Rasnick can stage Of Mice and Men with nearly cinematic segues, thanks to a miracle of a set created by scenic designer Stephen J. Larson. Larson employs multiple set pieces that role on or off instantaneously as the play’s location changes in a trice from a spring far from the ranch to a bunkhouse, to a barn, etc.
Dust-smeared Depression outfits by costume designer LeGrande Smith, Steve Larson’s moody lighting design, and Will Mikes’ superlative ambient sound also add an air of authenticity to this must-see drama, which could not be more timely as thousands upon thousands are losing their jobs and forced to contemplate the bleak, hard-scrabble, hand-to-mouth existence of George and Lennie, as well as their pie-in-the-sky plans to save up and buy their own ranch.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 24th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/depression-dreams-in-theatre-in-the-parks-of-mice-and-men/Content?oid=2640743; Aug. 23rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/08/23/1429175/gritty-steinbeck-play-comes-to.html; and Aug. 20th Raleigh, NC CVNC (Classical Voice of North Carolina) review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5034. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 18th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/08/tip-opens-its-2011-12-season-with-of-mice-and-men/.)
Theatre in the Park presents OF MICE AND MEN at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25-27, 3 p.m. Aug. 28, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 2 and 3, and 3 p.m. Sept. 4 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $22 ($16 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: http://www.etix.com/.
The Novella: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Of_Mice_and_Men (Wikipedia).
The Novelist/Playwright: http://www.steinbeck.org/ (National Steinbeck Center), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Steinbeck (Wikipedia), and http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1962/steinbeck-speech.html (Nobel Prize in Literature).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.