Of Mice and Men

Prime Stage Theatre’s 22nd season – “The Season of Courage” – opened Saturday evening with John Steinbeck’s classic story Of Mice and Men. Based on the Steinbeck’s novella of the same name, the play tells the tale of two friends, George and Lennie, and their struggle to live the American dream during the Great Depression.

Theirs is an unusual friendship; George (Corey Rieger) is intelligent, quick and small, while Lennie (Liam Macik) is a slow minded little boy in the body of a dangerously powerful man. Lennie is obsessed with all things soft and cuddly; a mouse, puppy, and other things.  George is cautious and protective of him and is particularly careful to monitor his interactions with others. The two have traveled together for years, from place to place, working hard to make ends meet and to save enough money to buy a place of their own. They dream living peacefully off the “fat of the land.” In spite of their differences, it is obvious they care deeply about each other and need each other.

When they are both hired to a new job, they believe that they may finally achieve their goal but it quickly becomes evident that this is “not a good place” for them to be. The other ranch hands, and in particular Curley (Ryan Bergman), the boss’ son, taunt and bully Lennie. Tension mounts when a fight ends with Lenny crushing Curley’s hand. George assumes they will be fired and booted off the ranch, but Curley’s father (Randy Berner) agrees his son is a hot head and allows George and Lennie to stay on. It doesn’t take long though for trouble to start brewing again.

George comes to the realization that he and Lennie can no longer run away.  The current predicament creates a moral dilemma for George. How should he deal with Lennie before the ranchers take matters into their own hands?

Director Scott P. Calhoon has assembled an exquisitely talented cast of actors for this production. Prime Stage has partnered with the National Steinbeck Center for this eightieth anniversary of the play that won the New York Drama Critics Circle Desk Award. The production also consulted with professionals at Western Psychiatric to ensure an authentic portrayal of Lennie Small and his developmental disability.

What emerges is a brilliant portrayal of characters dealing with life, loneliness, isolation, and exclusion. The quality of the performances is so compelling that you are quickly drawn into the character’s lives. You become engaged entirely to the point of losing awareness of being in a theatre. The audience members are so engrossed in the production, so silent, that you could hear a pin drop. The silence of the audience is only broken by unexpected laughter, not from humor, but as an emotional release. Steinbeck’s story foreshadows the outcome subtly, yet you know ultimately what must happen. People were literally sitting in the edge of their seats watching.

Liam Macik, in one of the most excellent performances of this season, is brilliant as Lennie. There is not the slightest doubt as he nails this portrayal. He is Lennie, physically, mentally and emotionally. Corey Rieger’s George, seemingly the stronger of the two lead characters, derives that strength from Lennie. Rieger displays a wide range of emotions as he sways between the need for Lennie’s friendship and the burdens that come along with it.

Chris Cattell’s portrayal of Slim, one of the lead (mule) skinner who appreciates Lennie’s abilities is genuine.  Other standouts are Ken Lutz as Curly, who lost one of his hand in a work accident. He delivers a touching and emotional performance as his beloved dog reaches the end of his life. In spite of an attempted collar slip out this night, Bennie was excellent as the dog and very disciplined in his performance.

In a play rich with raw emotion, the character of Crooks, the black stable hand hit a nerve. Sam Lothard who plays him casts an imposing figure, even as an older man who is stooped over from being worked too hard. Crooks, being black, is not allowed to mingle or socialize with others. He has a room in the stable, isolated and to himself with only his books to keep him company. In spite of his cynicism, there is a gleam in his eye as he hears of George and Lennie’s dream. He wants to join them as well, to be part of something, not alone anymore.

Johnmichael Bohach is rapidly becoming one of Pittsburgh’s most prolific and accomplished set designers. He has a rich and varied style from the complex and ornate to the minimalist. For Of Mice and Men the universal space is a weathered raised wooden floor with monolithic un-topped wooden columns that serve efficiently as trees, walls and door frames with a touch of greenery. The back wall is a grey canvas that designer J.R. Shaw paints with light to signify time and location aided by just right sounds from designer Angela Baughman. I liked Kim Brown’s costume choices, but wished for more depression era distressing in the form of dirt, wear and tear.

Directors often take the blame when a production is so-so. They can also be overshadowed by the actors, designers, and playwright when it’s a fabulous production. Kudos to Scott P. Calhoun who has created one of this season’s best dramas with Of Mice and Men. He has brought together all the elements in perfect harmony to tell this classic story.

Of Mice and Men serves to remind us if the tragic effects of bullying, loneliness, isolation, and racism have on individuals and our society. We have a lot to learn still.

Prime Stage’s production of Of Mice and Men at the New Hazlett theatre runs now through November 11th. Some content not suitable for very young children.  

 Audio Description is available for Friday, November 9th. ASL interpreter available for Saturday, November 10th. Garage parking is available for $7 cash only.

 For tickets and more information click here.

George Hoover got his start in theatre in Miami when his family ran the Coconut Grove Playhouse. His career encompasses a variety of work in both the design and technical side of motion pictures, live theatre, and television. George is a three-time Emmy Award winner, member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, Broadcasting & Cable Technology Leadership Award winner, Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers Life Fellow, and most importantly a passionate theatre person and generally handy guy.

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