Of Mice and Men
By Jill Gilmer
“A play based on an American classic is only worth doing if it can spark a revolution.”
This was the inspiration behind Rebecca Holderness’decision to direct Of Mice and Men at the UWM Mainstage theatre. Through the effective use of archival material and a variety of other unexpected touches, Ms. Holderness attempts to shine a light on the political messages that are usually overlooked in this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s heavily-analyzed novel. Time will tell if this student production achieves its director’s lofty goal, but Holderness clearly succeeds in creating a moving experience that simultaneously disturbs and inspires.
Of Mice and Men is the simple tale of George and Lennie, two migrant workers who roam the countryside during Depression-era California seeking work to finance their dream of buying their own ranch and living off “the fat of the land.” George and Lennie are an unusual pairing in the ranch-hand community. Lennie, a mildly-retarded giant of a man who doesn’t know his own strength, is in many ways the antithesis of the sophisticated George, who offers a vision of a better life and the brains to make it happen. Their tight bond of friendship is a source of envy for the other ranch-hands, many of whom travel solo and fight intense loneliness to maintain near-poverty wages. The story follows the evolution of their relationship as George seeks to balance the benefit of Lennie’s brawn and friendship with the liability associated with his uncensored comments and his propensity to touch soft things, including mice and their boss’ wife’s hair.
Black-and-white photos on elevated screens combine with dramatic lighting and a minimalist set to transport the audience to the 1930s. Another effective mood-setting device is a series of monologs by two characters that take place prior to the start of the play. Powerful archival images outside the theatre combine with excellent performances inside to penetrate the soul. The overall effect is a production that transcends a study of generally likeable characters to compel the audience to examine the priority of friendship and money, dreams and character in their own lives. The commentary on issues of labor and race may be more of a backdrop for exploring these broader themes than a central focus of the play, but the unique context they offer and the brilliant artistry with which they are presented provide at least two reasons why this two-and-a-half hour play is riveting from start to finish. VS
Of Mice and Men runs through March 2 at the UWM Mainstage Theatre. Call 414-229-4308 for tickets and information or visit the Mainstage Theater online.