An American Classic graces Hilberry stage
By John Quinn
John Steinbeck’s cry for social justice, Of Mice and Men, is a staple of high school literature classes across the country. It was Steinbeck’s first attempt at writing a “novel-play,” a novella that was ready for translation to the stage. Although stripped of the soaring descriptive passages in the book, the play is a thing of beauty, yet remains a stark account of lonely souls fruitlessly chasing the American Dream. It deserved the “Audience Choice” slot in the Hilberry Theatre season, and the company has done well by its patrons.
Two migrant workers, George (Peter Prouty) and Lenny (Erman Jones), are new arrivals at a harvest in California farm country. George is big brother and nanny to the mentally challenged Lenny, a giant man-child but still a valuable worker. Unlike the usual migrant, they dream of making enough to buy a small farm and get off the road for good. The job, though, is a field of broken dreams and toxic emotions, an inevitably lethal combination to innocents like George and Lenny. Of Mice and Men is a testament of the killing hopelessness of the Great Depression.
While Prouty ably does the heavy lifting with fast-talking George’s massive dialogue, it is Erman Jones’ non-verbal communication that stands out. Anyone who knows the developmentally disabled will recognize the reality in Jones’s gestures, grimaces and tics – even the gentle, childlike voice is dead on.
While all the performances are strong and convincing, there’s a tendency to confuse intensity with speed. This prize-winning material deserves a careful reading; like a fine wine, it needs to be savored.
There’s a special treat when a play’s design is greater than the sum of its parts. Scenic designer Peter Schmidt’s cloth sculpture backdrop paired with Thomas H. Schraeder’s lighting artfully shifts from the vivid colors of a California sunset to a darkening forest. The pair gives a wealth of atmosphere in a simple play of sunbeams through a windmill.
Director Anthony B. Schmitt, who retired from Wayne State University’s Department of Theatre in 2002, returns to give a well-rounded, sensitive reading to this most emotional of works. One cannot miss the parallels between the crushed dreams of the Great Depression and the crushed hopes of the Great Recession. While Steinbeck is timeless, Of Mice and Men is eerily current.
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in rotating repertory through Feb. 5. Tickets: $25 – $30. For information: 313-577-2972 or www.wsushows.com.