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.

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REVIEW: Eclipse Theatre’s “Democracy”

Democracy Is a “Lite” and Casual Affair

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Corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow.  –Abraham Lincoln, 1864

Eclipse Theatre presents:

Democracy

adapted by Romulus Linney
directed by Steven Fedoruk
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Lincoln saw it all coming, but could he have anticipated an America as rife with corruption as it was under his leading general? Henry Adams’ novel, Democracy, which forms one half of Romulus Linney’s adaptation, (the second being Adam’s novel, Esther, based on his wife) came from the disillusionment Adams experienced under Ulysses S. Grant’s administration. Idealistic and eager for reform, Adams pinned great hopes upon the rough, honest and honorable military man.

Democracy05 Disillusionment followed hard and fast upon Grant’s 1868 election—September 24, 1869 saw the dawn of Black Friday, a panic brought about by James Fisk and Jay Gould’s attempts to corner the gold market, as well as the severe misjudgments of Grant and his Secretary of Treasury George Boutwell to stop them. Investigation revealed the involvement of the President’s brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, but Grant’s association with Gould alone would have brought the scandal right to the door of the White House. In a prominent English journal, Henry Adams anonymously published an article on the scandal, hoping it would be picked up and reprinted often in the American press. It was, but Fisk and Gould never faced prosecution. The crash of Black Friday crippled the American economy for years afterward.

The most corruption Linney’s play touches on is the Whiskey Ring, involving Grant’s appointee General John H. McDonald and Grant’s own private secretary Orville E. Babcock. Even here, Linney only satirizes Grant’s alcoholism and his expurgated testimony. The play doesn’t mention that Grant fired special prosecutor John B. Henderson when he denied Grant’s wishes to hold Babcock’s trial in military court. Grant’s replacement, James Broadhead, not only allowed Babcock to be acquitted but also closed out all the other cases involved.

Material that could provide for four or five satires goes missing from both Adams’ novel and Linney’s adaptation. It becomes quite clear that we are dealing with American History Lite. But what Adams would not bring up out of a sense of delicacy or fear of reprisal, Linney most likely avoids out of our culture’s collective ignorance. If lite is the only way we can take it, all the worse for us, since forgetfulness like that can only leave us wandering in a fantasy theme park of a country–as make-believe as the fictions surrounding George Washington of which old Mrs. Dudley (Barbara Roeder Harris) disabuses the other characters on their day trip to Mt. Vernon.

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Who knows how much anyone is paying attention–since Senator Silas Raitcliffe (Jon Steinhagen) is wooing the recently arrived, beautiful young widow, Mrs. Lee (Rebecca Prescott), and young Episcopal minister Reverend Hazard (Stephen Dale) is in hot pursuit of Mrs. Dudley’s daringly bohemian niece, Esther Dudley (Nina O’Keefe). Director Steven Fedoruk keeps things light at Eclipse Theatre’s upstairs studio and focuses mainly on “who’s zoomin’ who.” He’s assembled an excellent cast in that case, able to handle the unevenness with which Linney has cobbled together Adams’ two novels.

The greater burden may be in portraying the younger couple–given their issues with mortality and proving improvable faith. Linney’s writing also doesn’t provide much in the way of romance for O’Keefe and Dale to connect with. But both actors do maintain the control needed to make their characters’ religious disputes personal and to temper the material’s overweening histrionics.

Democracy07 Linney’s adaptation allows the rest of the cast far more fun. Diplomat Baron Jacobi (Larry Baldacci), lobbyist Mrs. Baker (Cheri Chenoweth), and Mrs. Dudley are a hoot, as we say out here beyond the Beltway. Ron Butts and Sandy Spatz make an amusingly backwoods Mr. and Mrs. President, although why Butts doesn’t push Grant’s alcoholism further is anyone’s guess.

Sen. Raitcliffe and Mrs. Lee explore and expound their passions for politics as much as for each other. They form an arguably perfect pair, since each may be as ethically compromised as the other. Steinhagen, who recently played Judge Brack with sinister sophistication in Raven Theatre’s Hedda Gabler, throws out villainy for the blinkered guilelessness that Henry Adams wrote for the novel’s character—a man who regards “virtue and vice as a man who is color-blind talks about red and green.”

Why neither novel nor play delve much into Mrs. Lee’s ethical colorblindness remains a conundrum, since Raitcliffe throwing away millions of votes makes for less of a wake-up call than Raitcliffe receiving a bribe for his party. Could Mrs. Lee be the quintessential American—less likely to grasp political transgressions, but more able to understand the personal ones, like an errant blowjob or two? As Raitcliffe declaims during one of Mrs. Lee’s parties, politics in a democracy can only be as pure and honest as the people it comes from. A little more sophistication on the part of the American people couldn’t hurt either. A sucker may be born every minute, as another 19th century figure was fond of saying, but we should at least try to have the next generation of suckers be smarter than the last.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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