Sharp, moving portrayals lift ‘Of Mice and Men’

Continues through March 18 at Congregation Beth Israel
Paul Lamar/For The Daily Gazette

Joseph Bruton, left, and Daniel Martin play the roles of George and Lenny, respectively. Photo Peggi Perrone

Joseph Bruton, left, and Daniel Martin play the roles of George and Lenny, respectively. Photo Peggi Perrone

Wednesday’s snowstorm scrapped director John Birchler’s tech rehearsal for “Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck’s 1937 adaptation of his novella. At Thursday’s opening the lighting and sound effects were still works in progress, but soon Jonathan Riven should have things under control.

When they are, they will enhance what is already a satisfying telling of the tale of Lennie Small (Daniel B. Martin) and George Milton (Joseph Bruton), two California drifters/ranch hands who arrive at yet another ranch to try to earn enough money for their own place.

In the first scene we learn that the two have fled Weed in a hurry because Lennie has unintentionally hurt a young woman. Not a new story: Lennie is physically big and strong, emotionally childlike (he loves to pet soft things), and intellectually stunted, a combination that makes it difficult for him to negotiate the world without George.

At this new ranch George tells Lennie to say nothing; to stay clear of a bully, Curley (Glenn Read), and Curley’s flirtatious wife (Hannah Jay); and to do exactly what George tells him to.

Of course, Lennie can’t get it all together, with disastrous consequences.

An incredible sadness hangs over this community of ranch hands. They work hard for a small paycheck that buys a trip to a whorehouse for drink and a “flop.” But they have dreams, and when they hear about George and Lennie’s, a couple of them want in. For example, Candy (Vince Farago), whose beloved old dog cruel Carlson (Alan Angelo) takes it upon himself to shoot, offers the duo some money to buy the ranch.

Crooks (Aileem Penn), a black stable worker, isolated from the others because of his race, also wants in when Lennie tells him about it. Indeed, the loneliness of nearly everyone — by circumstance, by temperament — is overwhelming, and it’s to the credit of the cast and Birchler that they make us realize how much all of us want to love and be loved.

This theme is especially evident in the penultimate scene, when Curley’s wife explains her plans to get away from vicious Curley and find her fortune in Hollywood, while Lennie rhapsodizes about the farm. Jay and Martin are superb.

Others in the cast are Seana Munson, Ed Miller, and William Wilday, each of whom credibly contributes to Steinbeck’s depiction of this Depression-era life.

Kudos to Angelo for his sharp portrayal of the nasty Carlson; to Farago for imbuing Candy with a kind of sad hopefulness; and to Penn for creating so movingly Crooks’ clear-eyed view of life— bitter with good reason, yet not without a modicum of hope.

Jay shines throughout as the young woman whose background explains all too poignantly her dreams.

And from the opening scene, Bruton and Martin shoulder the show with complete confidence and brilliance. Martin’s vocal and physical tics come from the inside, where all of Lennie’s desire to be heard and understood comes from. Bruton’s range is extraordinary: for all of George’s savvy, he is perhaps the saddest character of all because deep down he understands the distance between reality and dream.

Props, too, to Birchler (and co-producer Linda Wilday) for their creative use of the space at Congregation Beth Israel.