By Wendy Rosenfield
FOR THE INQUIRER
Of Mice and Men is so well-known and universally taught in American middle and high schools, you’d think a staged production, such as People’s Light and Theatre Company’s, must go out of its way to distinguish itself. But despite plenty of obvious contemporary parallels, director David Bradley keeps John Steinbeck’s 1937 classic, well, classic, and stripped to its bare essence.
Everyone remembers George and Lennie — that mismatched pair of bindlestiffs looking for farm work, hoping to save up some scratch and “live off the fatta the lan’ ” — but this production takes its time in highlighting the story’s peripheral characters, the men and sole woman on this farm who pass for a community.
We soak in Peter DeLaurier’s energetic guilelessness as old, crippled Candy, whose tenderness toward his spotted, bandaged cur is as much a threat to the men’s fidelity to autonomy as is George’s stewardship of feeble-minded Lennie. Lou Ferguson’s exiled black stablehand Crooks slides from embittered and cruel to gentle and beseeching with hardly a nudge. Bradley encourages Jerry Richardson to spread out as long, lean, taciturn mule skinner Slim, and, in the greatest casting surprise, presents a coiled-up, spring-loaded Chris Faith as the boss’ son, Curley, perpetually thrusting his chin and bouncing on the balls of his feet, ready to hurl the entirety of his small frame at anyone unlucky enough to get caught in his path.
Also surprising: Ian and Jessica Bedford, married in real life, play, respectively, Lennie and Curley’s Wife. It’s a real accomplishment that the scene that determines Lennie’s fate is so taut you forget you may also be watching the pantomime of some seriously distressing spousal abuse. And though Pete Pryor’s George ultimately, disappointingly, remains a blank slate, both Bedfords deliver.
Ian, a mountainous figure, has a shaved, sloping head that leads when he walks, his jaw slack and open. He’s always slightly out of control and troubled; there’s a tension-heightening inevitability here that isn’t always present in other productions. Conversely, as costumed by Marla Jurglanis, Jessica appears as a red-heeled, downy-haired, flouncy pink bird, blown off course into this drab world of weatherbeaten men and materials. Her moods, too, are changeable as the wind. She chatters and sneers, pouts and threatens, anything to connect with anyone who hears her, even if they don’t listen.
Wilson Chin’s spare set, a flat expanse of downward-sloping wooden boards, and Christopher Colucci’s Americana-themed sound, with its wistful harmonica, guitar and fiddle interludes, carry home a sense of windswept loneliness. But this production’s most distinguishing feature is its individuals, each one distinct and distinctly alone among his or her fellows.
Through March 25 at People’s Light and Theatre, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $25-$45. Information: 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.