Arizona Theatre Company's 'Of Mice and Men' honors the timeless American drama

"Of Mice and Men" is one of those books that almost every student has to read in high school. I was no exception, and I spent much of my sophomore year looking up SparkNotes to supplement my skimming of the text. I'd say I read a good half of the book, but there was nothing to hook me — nothing that convinced me to feel for the characters or become emotionally involved in their plight.

At Saturday's Arizona Theatre Company production, however, I found myself on the edge of my seat, thrust into the well-known story with a new fondness for George and Lennie, a new hatred of Curley and a new appreciation for the classic tale.

The story follows gruff but kind George (Jonathan Wainwright) and sweet but mentally challenged Lennie (Scott Greer), two farm workers in the 1930s moving from place to place through California in search of work.

The two men dream of saving up to buy their own farm, but in the meantime they must settle for work at a ranch run by a harsh boss (Jonathan Gillard Daly) and his arrogant, combative son Curley (Bernard Balbot). Curely's wife (Kelley Faulkner) spends most of her time flirting with the workers, including a good-natured mule driver named Slim (James Farruggio), a bitter stable hand named Crooks (Chike Johnson) and a friendly one-handed worker named Candy (James Pickering).

When Candy overhears George and Lennie fantasizing about their perfect farm, complete with chickens, cows and a herd of tame bunnies, he volunteers his life savings to join them. The three then realize that if they pooled their resources, the cost of the farm would actually be attainable — so they excitedly create a pact to work for a month then buy the farm.

I won't spoil the infamous ending, but suffice it to say, things don't go as planned. The story is a dark commentary on the idealism of the American dream and what happens when that dream doesn't ring true. 

It takes a strong production to make Steinbeck's story relevant for modern audiences. Thankfully, ATC has a reputation for taking classic works and knocking them out of the park (for example, February's excellent staging of "Fences"), and "Of Mice and Men" was no exception. 

ATC co-produced the show with Milwaukee Repertory Theater, collaborating on scenery, costumes, lighting, sound, props and more. Through their team effort, they created a faithful adaption of the original text that managed to manifest the characters and themes faithfully.

First and foremost, what makes the ATC stage adaption so gripping is the spectacular acting. A story can be written well, but it means nothing until actors bring the characters to the stage and make their trials relatable to the audience. The cast of the ATC production was filled with veteran actors who knew exactly how to bring the ranch hands to life.

The sets and props were striking as well. There was an actual water trough built into the stage for the lake that plays a central role in one of the main settings. Saddles and bits of leather were hung on the wooden structure that served as the bunkhouse and barn, as if it was an actual ranch set against a realistic skyline. Candy's beloved old dog was played by an actual dog, whose sad eyes and slow gait made him a character himself. While the small details wouldn't make or break a big production, they gave it an earnest, sincere flavor that brought the story to life.

Monday Theatre Dictionary:Cyclorama (Cyc) - A set device employed to cover the back and sometimes the sides of the...

Posted by Arizona Theatre Company on Monday, March 28, 2016

One of the most stunning visuals was, ironically, in between scenes. As part of the set changes, the lights went out and the background shone as a blazing sunset. The prop movers stepped in as silhouettes against the backdrop and made the scene transitions and set changes into a performance that subtly set the tone of the preceding and resulting scenes.

I would recommend the production to anyone who loves the original, anyone who skimmed the novel half-heartedly but wants to give the story another shot, or anyone who has to take AP Literature in the future and wants a jump start on the curriculum. The story is truly timeless and the ATC production is as faithful and charming as they come.

The show runs through April 17 at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix. More information can be found on the ATC website

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