Exiles From Eden | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Exiles From Eden 

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OF MICE AND MEN

Synergy Theatre Company

I've always considered Of Mice and Men a maudlin tale for adolescents, and it is. The novel, written during the Great Depression, is short and intense--guaranteed to hold a teenager's attention--and the stage adaptation is a textbook example of a well-made play. The exposition is swift and clear, the characters are vivid, and the symbolism is easy to grasp. The mouse that the mentally retarded Lennie kills by petting too hard is a blatant allusion to his own vulnerability, while the ranch he and his companion George hope to buy is their elusive Garden of Eden. The foreshadowing in the story is as subtle as a gunshot. When one of the ranch hands takes Candy's sickly old dog behind the bunkhouse and puts a bullet in its brain, you begin to wonder who's going to die the same way.

But the story, which Steinbeck adapted for the stage, is now receiving an impressive production by Synergy Theatre Company that exposes a deeper Steinbeck, one fully engaged in adult concerns. His primary concern is the plight of the weak and the vulnerable. The play is set primarily in the bunkhouse and barn of a ranch in the Salinas Valley of California, where Steinbeck himself worked as a bindle stiff--a low-paid hand. The program even contains a quote from Steinbeck that sounds like a certificate of authenticity: "I was a bindle-stiff myself for quite a spell. I worked in the same country that the story is laid in. The characters are composites to a certain extent. Lennie was a real person. . . I worked along side him for many weeks."

Lennie and George have been friends since boyhood. They travel together, moving from ranch to ranch to scrounge a living--a hard life made more difficult by Lennie's penchant for getting into trouble. When the play opens, the two are on the lam from a previous job; Lennie, who is huge and enormously strong, was accused of rape because he tried to feel the pretty flowered dress a young woman was wearing. Chased by men carrying shotguns (more foreshadowing), they hid in an irrigation ditch until nightfall and then fled.

This simple allegiance of two men is held up by Steinbeck as an alternative to human loneliness and isolation. "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world," George says, repeating the speech Lennie likes to hear. "They got no family. They don't belong no place. . . . With us it ain't like that. We got a future--" Lennie finishes the speech, "Because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why."

But the other ranch hands, steeped in the American ideal of rugged individualism, wonder what keeps these two guys together. Slim, the most decent of them, voices the suspicions of the group when he observes, "Ain't many guys travel around together." Then he offers his own generous explanation, "Maybe ever'body in the whole damn world is scared of each other."

This notion of mutual concern, which Steinbeck reiterated in The Grapes of Wrath, lies at the heart of this play. George and Lennie are reverse images of Cain and Abel--instead of being separated by jealousy and resentment, these two exiles from the Garden of Eden are united by their simple love for each other. Other characters, such as Curley's pretty young bride and Crooks, the black ranch hand forced to live alone in the barn, are isolated because of the intolerance and cruelty of others. Steinbeck offers simple companionship as an antidote to their isolation.

Synergy Theatre brings out the richness in this play through simple, well-focused performances. Director Mark Fritts, Synergy's artistic director and a cofounder, assembled a cast of actors who immediately fused into an ensemble--the world they create on stage seems utterly real.

Craig Martin makes Lennie painfully vivid. Yet he also conveys the fundamental dignity of this awkward man-child, making his plight even more painful to behold. But Martin's performance as Lennie can't be viewed apart from Alan Ball's performance as George. They each draw out and define the personality of the other. George's decency isn't clear without Lennie's vulnerability, and Lennie's lovable nature isn't visible without George's patient caring.

The other actors seem to derive a similar boost from each other. Annette Lazzara manages to reveal the loneliness of Curley's wife, who is regarded as a tart when she tries to talk with the ranch hands. Lawrence Bull endows Slim with the intelligence, understanding, and courage his character requires. John Sterchi is wonderfully abrasive as Carlson, who insists on shooting Candy's malodorous dog; and as Candy, George Lugg embodies the hopelessness of a damaged old man.

The set, by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod, masterfully solves one of the problems posed by the play. The opening scene takes place next to a stream, where George and Lennie rest before walking to the ranch. The next scene takes place in the bunkhouse. So the Penrods designed a bridge for the first scene that can be taken apart and turned into bunks. And Fritts has the ranch hands perform the chore, bantering with each other as they work.

With this production, Synergy Theatre lives up to its name. Everyone involved in this production seems to absorb energy from the others, making the total impact of the production greater than the sum of its parts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Abrams.

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