By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
Lennie (Scott Greer) smashes the fist of his work boss Curly (Bernard Balbot) and gets in big trouble.
Arizona Theatre Company's golden season of excellent shows continues with its heart-breaking and poignant production of John Steinbeck's “Of Mice and Men.” On opening night, audience members couldn't wait to leap out of their seats for the curtain call.
They were clapping, standing, cheering like crazy. By the time Scott Greer and Jonathan Wainwright, the child-like Lennie and the raw-boned George respectively, stepped out in front this noisy enthusiasm was at rock star levels.
And the best part is this outpouring of audience joy was completely deserved. Greer's performance as Lennie is incredible. Using a complex vocabulary of body language rich as a museum masterwork, Greer captures the simple mind and enormous strength of this man forced to survive in a hard scrabble society of unforgiving rules far beyond his understanding.
The 79-year-old story is set among a desperate group of scraggy 1930s ranch hands in the Salinas Valley of northern California. As directed by Mark Clements of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, we can immediately believe today's immigrant farm workers don't have it any better.
George is the practical one who knows how to get along with other men. He doesn't plan on being in this unforgiving labor situation forever. But on the other hand, he doesn't have an escape plan. He only has a dream. A dream he shares with Lennie, who listens to George with complete trust.
It is this trust that gives George a larger sense of importance, a reason for living. Everybody on the ranch expects George to keep Lennie under control.
Because Lennie is such a strong and tireless worker who never questions authority, he's considered a good hire. But that means George also needs to get hired, because George is Lennie's controller. And equally so, without Lennie George would have a harder time finding work.
“Of Mice and Men” is built on the hard knock language in Steinbeck's world. And also the old school appreciation for literary qualities that playwrights gave up on decades ago. Time after time, simple phrases in the way men talk carry deep psychological meaning. Clements and his actors work these lines like psychological mining tools, digging far below the surface, implying and reflecting. Always wanting more.
All the performances are strong. Each cast member has a clear take on what needs to be done. So we sit and watch this play build to its inevitable conclusion, that sad denouement followed by a thrilling urge to jump up and cheer.
“Of Mice and Men” runs through March 26, with performances at various times Tuesdays through Sundays at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $28-$68. For details and information, 622-2823, or visit arizonatheatre.org