A Toll in the Hay: Lennie pays dearly for canoodling with Curly?s wife.
A Toll in the Hay: Lennie pays dearly for canoodling with Curly?s wife.

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For some of us whose ninth-grade reading lists included Of Mice and Men, the novella lives in the memory as a movingly tragic ode to the plight of the working man during the Great Depression. Those of a more cynical bent, however, remember Steinbeck’s tale of dashed hopes on a California ranch as the book that first taught us the difference between pathos and bathos.

Test yourself at home: “Tell me about the rabbits, George.” If reading that sentence just now evoked the simple, heart-­rending power of the book’s final chapter, you belong to the first group, which is full of emotionally available people. If, however, your reaction to that sentence was more in the eye-roll, tongue-cluck vein, you should know that you are not at all a good person, and you should come sit here by me.

True believer and black-hearted cynic alike will find their respective recollections vindicated by Olney’s spare, dutiful production of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck adapted the book for the Broadway stage himself, back in 1937, the same year the book was published. That probably wasn’t much of a chore, however, because he’d intentionally written the book to read like a play in the first place.

And so Olney’s staging unfolds with the plain, uncomplicated directness of the novella. Two itinerant ranch hands, the protective George (Richard Pilcher) and the hulking man-child Lennie (Christopher Lane) arrive at a barley ranch, where a variety of petty cruelties are visited upon them. They dream of getting a farm of their own one day, but, as poet Robert Burns says, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley.” And sure enough, as has been telegraphed since the opening scene, it is Lennie’s fondness for petting soft things that causes their schemes to gang so thoroughly and tragically agley.

Director Alan Wade seems determined to fill the gaps in Steinbeck’s spartan framework with human emotion. When his actors are up to the task, he succeeds. But the melodramatic excess has been factory pre-installed, and some members of the cast have trouble staying grounded.

In the opening scene, Pilcher’s performance as George seems outsize. He explodes at Lennie repeatedly, and the words don’t seem to jibe with the volume at which they are declaimed. But as the play proceeds, it starts to dawn on you what Pilcher and Wade are up to here: George’s emotional arc doesn’t heat up over the course of the play, it cools. His frustration with Lennie doesn’t build slowly, it coalesces into weary resignation and resolve, which is why Pilcher gets quieter, his gestures smaller, with every passing scene.

You don’t get much of a sense of George’s oft-articulated loneliness in this performance—Pilcher’s a little too guarded here for that to come through—but he does make George’s sense of duty to look after Lennie palpably real, and maybe that’s more important.

To claim the role of lumbering lunk Lennie as his own, Christopher Lane is faced with a daunting challenge. Many in the audience harbor Lon Chaney Jr.’s original performance of the role in their unconscious. Chaney’s interpolation was cemented there by, of all things, several Warner Brothers shorts, in which Mel Blanc parodied Chaney’s distinctive, mouth-breathing locution. If you grew up quoting Blanc’s Abominable Snowman (“I will name him George, and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him”) long before you read Steinbeck, that postmodern inversion tends to make it harder for you to appreciate Lennie as a tragic figure, no matter who plays him.

Of all the actors, Lane stands on the front lines in this production’s ongoing battle between sentiment and sentimentality. Mostly, he puts up a game fight. His booming voice seems at first like a limiting choice, but he uses sudden drops in register to express emotional turns. It’s not exactly subtle, but then neither is Lennie, and it works.

Jeff Allin gives a quietly compassionate and naturalistic performance as Slim, the de facto moral center of the ranch. He seems most in sync with the director’s efforts to humanize and particularize the proceedings. John Dow is maybe a bit too fussy as Candy, the aging one-handed handyman whose prize pet, a smelly old dog, is euthanized midway through in what has to be the least shadowy example of foreshadowing in modern literature. Robert Leembruggen, as the whining, cackling ranch hand Carlson who does the dog in, provides a few moments of physical comedy, which are most welcome. Although, he hasn’t quite nailed the accent yet—his drawl slides around on every line.

In the small role of Whit, R. Scott Williams makes a choice that adds a satisfying layer of humanity to the production, though perhaps not in the way Steinbeck intended. In the script (and in the book), Whit is an inexperienced young ranch hand who expresses enthusiasm, but also nervousness, about going to the local cathouse. “Susy got nice chairs to set in too,” he says. “If a guy don’t want to flop, why, he can just set in them chairs and have a couple or three shots and just pass the time of day.” Williams slyly transforms the script’s uneasiness into ambivalence and connects the rest of the character’s dots (animated speaking style, given to gossip, delighted descriptions of whorehouse décor) in an amusingly, um, Brokeback way.

The production design is suited to its subject. Carl Gudenius’ weathered-looking wooden sets are realistic in detail but go all feathery and expressive at their outer edges, which is where Charlie Morrison’s magnificent lighting takes over. The rear of the stage is a blank wall of sky, and under Morrison’s careful eye, that featureless expanse cycles evocatively and convincingly through cold blue dawns and warm, golden sunsets.

Once the last of those warm sunsets has shifted into the moonlit night of the play’s closing scene, the production can no longer resist falling into the gravity well of sentimentality it has slowly circled all evening long. Surprisingly, it’s not the script’s fault, although Steinbeck does lay it on with a trowel.

Wade has Pilcher milk the scene too long: George makes ready to do what he needs to do, only to make way too big a show of hesitation and frustration every time Lennie speaks—which is often. Very often. Comically often, I’m afraid. And because the rhythms of those final moments start to edge so close to the familiar rhythms of shtick, the evening closes on a note that reaches for tragic and inevitable but winds up closer to Kramden and Norton.