No one familiar with Robert Kelley's vast and impressive body of work as TheatreWorks' founder and artistic director should be surprised to learn that his current production of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" is a gorgeous and affecting piece.
Backed by a team of designers that includes Tom Langguth (set), Allison Connor (costumes), Steven B. Mannshardt (lights) and Jeff Mockus (sound), Kelley has created a staging of Steinbeck's melodrama that is nearly flawless in its simplicity. The Depression-era Salinas Valley and the lives of its migrant workers are evoked with a few deft strokes: the weathered farm buildings ringed by fields of barley and the silhouettes of distant hills, the muted color palette in the workers' costumes, the half-heard fiddle tune that flits between gaiety and melancholy but never settles for long in one place.
The show is also exceptionally well cast, a tribute to TheatreWorks' longtime casting director, Leslie Martinson. The performers disappear into their roles, embodying Steinbeck's battered misfits physically, vocally and emotionally.
TheatreWorks' stage production is so good, in fact, that it actually outshines the book.
For those who got through high school without reading at least the CliffsNotes, "Of Mice and Men" is a 1937 novella that tells the story of two migrant laborers: the hulking, slow-witted Lenny and his companion, George, who spins tales of an independent, landed future while trying to keep Lenny out of trouble long enough to bankroll their shared dream. It is generally regarded as a classic of American literature, both for the power of its central relationship and for Steinbeck's intimate portrayal of the dispossessed workers who supported (and still support) California's agricultural industry.
But some critics, this one included, feel that the novella, with its twistless plot and blatant foreshadowing, reads more like a schematic than a fully fleshed tale. And the characters' naturalistic dialect, on the page, can come off as slightly cartoonish.
In a well-acted theatrical production, though, these prose weaknesses become dramatic strengths. The inexorability of the heavily telegraphed conclusion takes on the gravity of a Greek tragedy, and Steinbeck's dialogue, when delivered by strong actors with the right mix of conviction and finesse, provides an authenticity that makes the characters anything but cartoons.
Anchoring the current production are Jos Viramontes as George and AJ Meijer as Lenny. For TheatreWorks' staging, Kelley has chosen to portray the protagonists as Mexican-American. It's a nice choice that deepens the play's resonance in our current political climate.
Viramontes digs into the text and emerges with a George so specific, so well considered, that we have no choice but to believe him. George's life may be endlessly complicated by Lenny's needs and limitations, but he has something that none of the other migrant laborers has: a companion. George's strength of purpose, his dedication to one small rural corner of the American dream, all stem from the need to "look after" Lenny. It's a noble path, but we see the price in Viramontes' bearing.
AJ Meijer handles the fantastically difficult role of Lenny well, never allowing his characterization to descend into caricature. He wins us over with Lenny's nervous giggle, his childish enthusiasm, his silly pride. But there is danger lurking beneath the surface, visible in Lenny's panicky confusion and the roiling asymmetry of his face.
Other outstanding performances come from Gary Martinez as Candy and Charles Branklyn as Crooks, the two most outwardly broken of the play's many broken characters.
The other men in the cast also give smart, textured performances: Harold Pierce as the explosive Curley, Michael Ray Wisely as Carlson, Josiah Polhemus as Whit, and Chad Deverman as the sympathetic and vaguely androgynous mule skinner Slim.
The least convincing is Lena Hart as Curley's wife, the only woman on the ranch and, consequently, the source of gossip and suspicion. Hart seems not to have decided if this is a misogynistic play or merely a play about misogynists, leaving her characterization muddied: Is Hart playing a tramp who brings trouble to otherwise good men, or is she playing a naive woman whose intentions are mistaken by the men around her? Sadly, her climactic scene with Lenny is the production's weakest, with Hart and Meijer never quite finding the rhythms that will keep their soliloquies energized and authentic.
To be fair, this last complaint may result from a flaw in Steinbeck's writing. He was still a young writer when "Of Mice and Men" was created, still experimenting with his craft.
Anyone who loves Steinbeck's novella should see this production. More importantly, anyone who doesn't love the novella should see it as well. TheatreWorks' masterful presentation gives this classic work a renewed vigor, suggesting that it may be better suited to the stage than to the page.
"Of Mice and Men," presented by TheatreWorks at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. Through April 29, with shows Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $19-$69. Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.