John Steinbeck left room for almost nothing but desperation when he wrote the arresting adaptation of his Depression-era story
Of Mice and Men
. Its dreariness could overtake you even as the force of its storytelling overwhelms you.
Against the odds, the Walnut Street Theatre's impeccable production of the drama - precision-timed, played with a tough-life tone and acted with a regal undertone - mines its human qualities.
The audience discovers Steinbeck's subtly funny exchanges and laughs. My last visit to the play remains vivid in memory; no one laughed, only tittered nervously. On opening night Wednesday, I couldn't detect anxiety in the laughter at the Walnut. In the hands of an all-Philadelphia cast of pros, the hardened men who work a grain farm for chicken-feed pay have a sense of humanity everyone can identify with.
Director Mark Clements' staging squeezes the play's juice and mixes in all the pulp - he serves up not just the story, with all its impact, but also manages a theatrical tension that never lets up. Clements' effort is abetted by the massive frames of wooden slats that Todd Edward Ivins created to exploit the Walnut stage's depth; the six-bed bunkhouse of this farm is real, and the barn is what a barn should be.
I mention the laughter up top because Of Mice and Men is an exacting play, and when it's over, you're glad for the experience, and for knowing its two principal characters, even though the overall effect was something like taking medicine. I eavesdropped as the opening night let out, ambling back and forth at the theater doors, and the word I kept hearing was sad. No kidding, it's sad from Scene One.
But it's also enthralling. And in this production it has not just a character Steinbeck wrote to take your breath away, but also a portrayal that fulfills the aim. Scott Greer, who has won three Barrymores, could add a fourth.
Greer plays the addle-brained Lennie, a giant with the mind of a 6-year-old. Greer has it down: the innocent expression that draws empathy from every seat in the house; the eyes, half-vacant and half-terrified; a childlike nervousness that seeps into every reaction. After a while, you can detect what's going on in his mind even before he tells you.
His constant companion, George, nailed solidly by Anthony Lawton, sometimes treats Lennie like a dog and then automatically balances his behavior, like a ship righting itself in heavy waves. The two, pals since youth, are mutually dependent as they travel the backwoods of Northern California to find any brute-force work available. They have a dream - real in modern America, but cockamamie in their place and time - to buy a house, work the land, live without fear of poverty. And without the ridicule they get for being two guys struggling together through life.
For a time, you think they can make it, can find a way to climb out of the depression, with both a small and capital "d," that's overtaken the country. If they could just save enough money in the farm job they've found.
On that farm, Candy (the spry Bev Appleton) is the old guy who's eager to bust out with them. Slim (Dan Olmstead, a master at subtly building his character) is a no-nonsense supervisor, and Darren Michael Hengst gives a precise rendering of the farm owner's son, a cocky upstart with a menacing mien.
Lindsay Smiling portrays the black farmhand as a man clearly broken by his segregation from the others, and Karen Peakes impressively brings off a tough role. She's the wife of the farm owner's son, and she's supposed to be both a vixen and a victim of circumstances. The cast is rounded out by the farm owner (Paul L. Nolan) and two farmhands (Ian Merrill Peakes and Russ Widdall), and a dog. But there's not a dog among them, for sure.
Written by John Steinbeck, directed by Mark Clements, sets by Todd Edward Ivins, costumes by Colleen Grady, lighting by Shelley Hicklin, sound by Ryk Lewis. Presented by Walnut Street Theatre.
Cast: Scott Greer (Lennie), Anthony Lawton (George), Bev Appleton (Candy), Dan Olmstead (Slim), Darren Michael Hengst (Curley), Lindsay Smiling (Crooks), Karen Peakes (Curley's wife), Paul L. Nolan (the boss), Russ Widdall (Carlson), Ian Merrill Peakes (Whit).
Playing at: Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Through March 4. Tickets: $10 to $57.50. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.