In 1937 John Steinbeck published Of Mice and Men, a short novel about two California drifters with small prospects and big dreams. The ironically named Lennie Small is a retarded giant; George Milton is his long-suffering keeper. Steinbeck described his dialogue-heavy novel as "a tricky little thing designed to teach me to write for the theatre." With the help of crafty director George S. Kaufman, Steinbeck adapted the novel for Broadway.
Now, nearly 70 years later, what Steinbeck initially deemed "a simple little thing" is being positioned by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis as a "towering classic tragedy." It could be that both views are true. Perhaps time and circumstances have added stature and heft to Steinbeck's modest experiment in stage dialogue. At least this production is to be commended for having a point of view. But whether it's a valid point of view is something theatergoers will have to determine for themselves.
The decision-making process begins with a scenic design whose sloping walls are so towering, you might think the story is set in Monument Valley rather than in the more pastoral Salinas Valley. Paul Shortt has designed an imposingly stark, sere universe worthy of a tragedy that reduces men to mere flyspecks. The tradeoff with reality comes when Lennie and George go to work on a ranch. The skeletal sets for the bunkhouse and barn eliminate any possibility that Lennie might be visually revealed as a man trapped. Or, if not trapped, at least hopelessly at odds with the constraints of normality.
A viewer is also going to have to decide about the speed at which Edward Stern has paced his production. It moves quickly; the entire evening lasts just over two hours. Most of the supporting performances have been painted in primary colors, and perhaps that too is the correct approach. Perhaps it's better to move the story along briskly rather than try to develop the various ranch hands, all of whom are little more than sketches. But what about the play's sole female role, simply labeled "Curley's Wife"? Curley is the boss' bullying son, recently married to a young hussy whom Steinbeck clearly describes in both the novel and the script as a tart. Isn't the notion of playing this character more as a kid sister than a latent hooker at odds with the story Steinbeck is trying to tell? Or is that story elastic enough to embrace even this kind of alteration?
Finally, one has to come to terms with the performances of Lennie and George. These two might well personify a kind of mythic loneliness that not only informs the American experience but extends to all men. (Those who attended the recent Rep staging of The Pillowman will find intriguing similarities in the brotherly relationships that infuse both scripts.) But in the short run we're more concerned by how persuasive the characters are onstage than by what they symbolize.
Brendan Averett's Lennie movingly captures the panic and terror of the simple-minded. "I don't like this place!" Lennie cries out in contorted yet prescient confusion after he meets Curley's Wife. Averett swirls about the stage as if he's trying to break loose from his clothes, from the bunkhouse, indeed from his primitive mind anything that is capable of trapping him.
Lennie's dependency on George is crystal clear, but what about George's dependency on Lennie? Viewers will have to decide for themselves about the effectiveness of Marc Aden Gray's George. As for me, I never for one minute felt that Lennie was anything other than a burden to George. And if you feel that way, the play cannot move you.
Which is not to say that the evening doesn't contain affecting moments. Midway through Act One, the staging of the sequence involving an old collie holds the audience rapt. But when a viewer cares more about the fate of a dog than the fate of a man, one final question must be asked: Isn't something out of joint?