"Of Mice and Men" at the Magic Circle Theatre

“I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy,” a character remarks in Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck’s enduring novel adapted for the stage and currently showing in a riveting production at the Magic Circle Theatre, in Carmel Valley.  Lennie and George’s unusual bond stands in stark contrast with what seems to be the natural condition of man, especially man’s attitudes toward other men: suspicious, competitive, and separate.  But Lennie, a mildly retarded man with great physical strength and a hunger for tenderness, and George, the homeless “bindle stiff” who has chosen to look after Lennie, share an authentic connection that suggests the redemptive possibilities of friendship, as well as its potential for sorrow.

Directed with emotional clarity by Elsa Con, this Mice and Men unfolds in an atmosphere of intimacy that befits its subject.  The opening of the play evokes the velvety beauty of the Salinas Valley, where Lennie and George are en route to a job at a farm in Soledad.  (The gorgeous, ingenious set design is by Dani Maupin and Laura Cote.)  They have escaped from a troubling episode at their previous employment in Weed, and are looking to make a fresh start.  Lennie’s first action in the play is to kneel down excitedly before a pond and scoop water into his mouth.  He is like a child, brimming with enthusiasms he cannot control.  George is more rational.  He knows they are soon to begin another period of hard, poorly-paid labor, and decides to delay their arrival and spend a night in the open country, free men, if only for a few hours.

It is here, as they ready for sleep, that Lennie asks George to tell again the story of their dream, how one day they will have a place of their own, and “live off the fatta the lan.”  Lennie is obsessed with the idea of taking care of rabbits—small, fragile creatures he yearns to hold and cuddle and stroke.  But Lennie already has a history with such creatures, and George makes him give up the dead mouse Lennie has been carrying in his pocket—dead from the uncontrollable strength of Lennie’s hands.

The acting in this production is superb.  Avondina Wills masterfully inhabits the character of Lennie, portraying the vulnerability and swift mood-changes of a man-child, a sweet soul in a body capable of violence.  Richard Boynton is excellent as George, an intelligent, quick-tempered but ultimately compassionate man who almost does not dare to wish for a better life yet cannot help himself from dreaming.  George often complains what a burden Lennie is, yet even this talk is a form of affection.

At the barley farm in Soledad, the two are soon caught up in dramas not of their making; the action in Of Mice and Men moves as swiftly as a Greek tragedy to its wrenching conclusion.  Inside the workers’ bunkhouse, Candy (the sensitive Bob Colter) has an aging dog whose smell enrages Carlson (Ron Cacas).  The Boss (Alan Zeppa) is suspicious of Lennie’s reluctance to speak.  The wife (the compelling Taylor Thorngate) of the boss’s son is lonely and has a habit of lingering around the farmhands, hoping for attention.  Before long, Lennie’s propensity towards violence is exposed in a scene with her husband, Curley (Garland Thompson), a jealous and insecure man in a state of perpetual agitation.  Curley is yappy and ineffectual, played by Thompson in a dramatic, overheated style somewhat at odds with the more naturalistic proceedings of the production.

Although we never learn her name, Curley’s wife is a key player in the story’s unfolding.  Steinbeck once said of this character that “her craving for contact is immense,” and it is this quality of craving, which is shared by Lennie, that drives the story to its tragic end.  As Crooks (James Porter) says, “A guy gets too lonely, he gets sick.”  Crooks knows of what he speaks: as a black laborer, he is forced to bunk down in the barn, separate from the other men.

Other characters, such as Slim and Whit (Brandon Burns and David Norum, both first-rate), function as a kind of audience within the play—sympathetic witnesses who cannot prevent the bad thing from happening.  The sensitive, painterly lighting (by Dennis Randolph) and effective sound design (by Garland Thompson) also contribute to the atmosphere of tenderness surrounding Lennie, George, and their sorrowful fate.

Steinbeck continues to be celebrated for his focus on the lives of the lowly, the marginalized and the dispossessed.  Here, in a memorable production no one should miss, he elevates the story of two impoverished drifters to the level of myth and high tragedy, offering tearful catharsis to any viewer who has ever experienced the comfort of friendship, and the pain of loss.

Of Mice and Men, now showing at the Magic Circle Theatre, in Carmel Valley, through Sunday, March 31.  Call 831-659-7500 or visit the theater's website for tickets and information.