Reviewed by Jon R. Coggins
As a fierce wind blew and temperatures plummeted this intrepid reporter braved the elements and icy roads to view Fenton Village Players latest offering in their 2019/20 season – John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
The audience, although on the smallish side, was nonetheless totally involved and committed to this story. I’m certainly not a Steinbeck scholar, but there are common themes that run through some of his plays; desperation, the search for a better life, striving and not succeeding, the plight of the downfallen and the poor, segregation, racial strife and the horror of our Great Depression. This is true for The Grapes of Wrath and this show – Of Mice and Men. Through words and actions both subtle and blatant, Director Mary Smith-Powers brought this show to life and the audience – including myself – was immersed and vested in the tale of George and Lenny.
To begin with – the set was amazing. The stage at FVP is smallish and not very deep. Smith-Powers’ design (and I understand she also did a lot of the extraordinary painting) first unfolded to show a bucolic country scene equipped with a roaring campfire and a stream with drinkable water! Later the set became a fully realized bunk house with a yard (there was an ever present yet unseen horseshoe game being played) and a barn which in turn opened to show the inside of the barn as well as the segregated Negro Crooks’ room. He wasn’t allowed in the bunkhouse. This was a truly amazing set. Lights, including a setting sun in the first scene, and sound effects were also well planned and well used.
Now either you know the story – and I don’t need to reiterate or you don’t so I won’t spoil anything. Suffice it to say it’s a story of survival and friendship and making the ultimate sacrifice. The friends of course are George, a frustrated yet earnest man intent on finding Shangri-La and protecting his friend Lenny, a beast of a man with a child’s heart and mentality.
Longtime theatre vet Larry LaFerriere who exudes confidence, bravado and intensity with a softer compassionate side plays George wonderfully. Larry brings George to life and he wins the audience over by the end of the play.
Lenny is a simple yet complex man/child that loves animals, soft things to rub, bunnies and George. Nick Carter plays him admirably. Carter plays this troubled being with aplomb, confidence and self-assurance. He is naïve, tender, soft spoken, violent and yes, dangerous. I can’t emphasis enough how talented this actor is. This is the second show where I’ve seen Carter play a disturbed man – he was Chief in FVP’s fine production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and he has performed tremendously!
Other cast members of note – and they were all wonderful – include Mike Dietz as Candy. A one handed man left to perform the drudgery of life on a ranch as he awaits death. Candy helps move the narrative forward. He is sickly, thin, and haggard and resolved to a meaningless life and death. Dietz does a wonderful job and Candy eventually buys into George and Lenny’s dream hoping beyond hope to join them. He was a bit hard to hear at first, but he gained confidence as the play moved along.
Curly, the boss’s son provides the drama/antagonism. He is impatient, mercurial and extremely jealous as played by Jacob Gurnsey who went for stereotype in this role. I’m not sure this is a bad thing or a wrong choice. The role demands bellicosity, anger, a severe temper and bad judgement. Gurnsey made the role work.
Slim played by Kevin Emmons was the soft-spoken philosopher in the bunkhouse. Immediately accepted by the audience and George, he helps move the story along. He is smart, inquisitive, thoughtful and caring. Well done.
Dennis Sykes, an old friend and longtime theatre vet plays Crooks, the lone and segregated Negro on the ranch. He is bitter. He can’t use the bunkhouse; he is lonely (the rest of the guys won’t mingle with him except for on the horseshoe pit) and is seemingly resigned to life as a minority in the Depression era. Sykes brings Crooks alive, and we all sympathize with him. Well done.
Another fly in the ointment/antagonist is Curley’s wife. She is beautiful, scared, probably abused, certainly dissatisfied with her life and a dangerous flirt. Played tremendously by Laura Strong, she eventually decides to run away to Hollywood sparking the climactic downfall of all. No spoilers here but her last scene left the audience in – drop a pin – silence. What an incredible moment.
The balance of the cast – and again all were wonderful – included Carlson played by Matt Osterberg, Whit played by Tony Nelson, The Boss played by Geno Essenmacher and Sam a farm hand with a tremendously large pistol played by Ben Sampson. Oh, and lest we forget the old dog – played with confidence by Sally the dog. The audience let out a collective “Awww” when she made her entrance. She was even in the receiving line greeting her fans after the show. Good girl!!
Troubles were slight and fixable. There was tongue tying across the board (slow down a bit) probably due to opening night jitters. There was some too quiet dialogue that also improved as the night progressed.
Still, the story moved through highs and lows with many touching and exciting scenes. From the tender opening to the tragic ending, Mary Smith-Powers presents a wonderful show. Of Mice and Men continues at the V. Sibyl Haddon Auditorium in Fenton February 28th through March 8th. Call 810-750-7700 for details and tickets. Take the time to see this wonderful locally produced and performed take on a classic American Tragedy.