REVIEW: Of Mice and Men (Oak Park Festival Theatre)

Familiar story has power under the stars

 Oak Pak Festival Theatre's "Of Mice and Men"

   
Oak Park Festival Theatre presents
  
Of Mice and Men
 
By John Steinbeck
Directed by
Belinda Bremner
Austin Gardens Park, 157 N. Forest Ave., Oak Park (map)
Through July 10  | 
Tickets: $10-$25; chair rental: $2 |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One trouble with shows based on works almost everybody had to read in high school is they tend to lack suspense. That said, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck evokes all of the power of the original tragic novelette. Even though you know what’s coming at every step, Belinda Bremner’s production provides plenty of impact.

The timeless themes of loneliness and the solace of forged connections and shared dreams come to life under the stars in Austin Gardens Park, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s outdoor venue. Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men as a "play-novelette," designed theatrically, so it makes a seamless transition to the stage. (A minor quibble: I disagree with Bremner’s decision to combine the three acts into two, but I suppose that with the show at nearly 2½ hours, she didn’t want to add the extra intermission.)

Oak Pak Festival Theatre's "Of Mice and Men" You can bring or rent lawn chairs if you like, or sit in the bleachers, though one lady in front of me really knew how to do outdoor theater right — she came equipped with a blanket to spread on the lawn, a pillow to lounge on, votive candles, mosquito sticks, bug spray and a basket of snacks and drinks. (If you bring nothing else, I highly recommend bug spray.) Some scenes take place on the stage and others on the ground at stage left, so whatever you sit on, situate yourself toward "house" right for the best views.

Just in case you went to school in some other country, Of Mice and Men follows George Milton and Lenny Small, two itinerant, California farm workers during the Great Depression. They have been traveling together for years, though George is smart and ambitious and Lenny is mentally impaired — a small child in a strong man’s body. The two aspire one day to have their own place, where they can live off the fat of the land. Lenny never tires of hearing George recount what will happen when they achieve this goal.

George often vents his frustration with Lenny, who gets the pair into odd scrapes and some serious trouble through his love of touching soft things and his lack of understanding, but he never considers abandoning his companion. Lenny is completely confident in George — though he offers to go off and live in a cave, he trusts George won’t take him up on it. Kevin Theis gives George just the right edginess and protectiveness, while David Skvarla does a stupendous job as Lenny, endlessly befuddled and attractively childlike, as the show builds to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

When the two arrive on a new ranch, they meet Candy, a broken-down old hand whose own companion, a beloved, elderly dog, becomes a matter of contention in the bunkhouse. Candy offers George and Lenny a means of bringing their far-off hopes to reality. Veteran Chicago actor William J. Norris’ compelling performance gives the production real depth.

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Meanwhile, Curley (a vigorous Adam Meredith), the pugnacious son of the ranch boss, picks on Lenny just to make up for his own inadequacies; and another lonely ranch hand, Crooks (a sensitive portrayal by Emanueal Buckley), kept at arm’s length because he’s black, is also inclined to take out his resentment on Lenny but ultimately relents.

Curley’s new wife, a nameless and ill-omened young woman who regrets the recent marriage that has done nothing to cure her loneliness, tries to chat up the men just to have something to do, but they misinterpret her friendly overtures. Ricky Lurie’s period clothes for the men look just fine, but Curley’s wife ought to be dressed more provocatively. Her plain-jane overalls and braids, combined with Skyler Schrempp’s rather earnest portrayal, make it difficult to imagine how the men can see her as a tramp.

Ron Butts, Stanton Davis, Ben Carr and Walter Briggs ably fill out the cast.

Unseen live musicians provide a little incidental music, but they seem under-utilized. A recording of Woody Guthrie classics played before the show and at intermission seemed fitting at first, but became tiresome by its third iteration. More live music could make this very good production into a great one.

       
      
Rating:★★★½
   
   

Note: Free parking available in the 19th Century Club lot on North Forest Avenue.

Extra Credit:

Ensemble

BOSS: Ron Butts
CANDY: William J. Norris*
CARLSON (understudy Slim): Ben Carr
CROOKS: Emmanuel Buckley
CURLEY: Adam Meredith
CURLEY’S WIFE (Edie): Skyler Schrempp
GEORGE: Kevin Theis*
LENNY: Dave Skvarla
SLIM: Stanton Davis
WHIT: Walter O Briggs
GEORGE (June 30):  Michael Lasswell

Production Team

Stage Manager: Robert W. Behr*
Set Design: Aimee Hanyzewski
Lighting Design: Jill Norris
Costume Design: Ricky Lurie
Sound Design: Kyle Irwin
Props Design: Tramon Crawford

* denotes AEA member

   
    

One Response

  1. Ms. Zeldes,
    You missed it. Curly’s wife was dressed and played “plain-jane” with purpose. I watched director Bremer’s choice for this character with amazement. Curly’s wife is typically shown dressed “provocatively,” and such a decision proves to the audience that she gets what she has coming. However, OPFT’s unique decision shows that Curly’s wife has the same desires as the lonely ranch hands. Perhaps her demise is on par with the tragedy of Lennie’s death. Perhaps a woman has the same wants and needs as a group of men. Perhaps her worth is the same as theirs.

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