The Keegan Theatre’s “Of Mice and Men” is a touching reenactment of a story many of us first discovered in high school.
A classic staple of American Literature, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men explores a common theme in his work—the lives of migrant workers in the Eastern United States during the Great Depression—by focusing on two ranch workers that travel together, in the hopes of earning enough to buy their own plot of land.
Director Kerry Water Lucas’ version of the story, currently at the Church Street Theater by Dupont Circle, focuses on the theme of friendship. Danny Gavigan, in the role of the friendly yet mentally disabled Lennie, is most convincing in the moments when he expresses his feeling for George, played by Mark A. Rhea.
When the black stable keeper on the ranch questions Lennie about George’s intentions, Gavigan responds with an immediate pain that overwhelms the scene, shadowing the subplot of racial tension at the ranch.
In the final moments of the play, as Lennie kneels and looks out over the river, trusting George completely even as he takes out the pistol by which Lennie meets his end, the agony of the loss of friendship again overwhelms a scene that has powerful socio-political subtext. The lighting and sound in the final scene improves noticeably, complementing the powerful emotions in the scene.
The set design is stark, yet beautiful, dominated by movable wooden partitions that alternatively resemble a fence in shambles or a downtrodden barn.
Some of the supporting cast is less successful in their approximations of the other ranch workers. Lee Matthews, the token woman the play, is tragically misunderstood and tragically theatric. Her performance seems more appropriate for a Broadway production than a small intimate stage.
Matt Bolie plays the wistful farm hand Candy. He has lost his hand on the farm and received $250 of compensation, about half of what George and Lennie need to buy up the plot they have in mind. Bolie’s character undergoes a complete transformation throughout the play, from a cheerful and hopeful accomplice in the plan, to a devastated skeleton of a man when his dog, a pride and joy, is shot and buried.
The play continues to vacillate between hope and destruction: Lennie accidentally kills a mouse by “petting it too hard” and then receives a baby pup—a dog on the farm has just had young; the black farm hand overcomes his loneliness and accepts Lennie’s presence shortly before a striking confrontation at the door with the ranch owner; Lennie and George seem to be well on their way to success when an unfortunate misstep destroys their hopes yet again. It leaves the audience with a deep confusion about optimism and pessimism, as well as the inevitable intervention of luck in life.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Directed by Kerry Waters Lucas. About 2 hours 20 minutes running time, $30 general admission, $25 for students/seniors. Through Nov. 29 at the Church Street Theater. For tickets, call 703-892-0202 or go to http://www.keegantheatre.com