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Ed Jewett and Jarel Davidow
in Of Mice and Men
It seems that many people nowadays don't want to go to the theater to have their hearts broken, even though very sad movies like Far From Heaven, The Hours, or The Pianist are successful with the masses. Perhaps there's something about watching a sorrowful story played out by live actors, rather than screen images, that's too powerful for some folks. A prime example of this was the Steppenwolf Theater Company's magnificent, Tony Award winning production of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which closed swiftly on Broadway in 1990 despite tons of well deserved praise.

In view of the above, it's a thrill to report that the Oberon Theatre Ensemble's exemplary production of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men played to a packed house on the night I attended. This timeless story of loneliness and the human urge for home and companionship held the audience rapt until its devastating conclusion. You could hear a pin drop as the tale of Depression-era migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small unfolded, their dream of buying their own ranch dashed at the very moment when it seems finally to be within their grasp.

Any production of this play stands or falls on the abilities of the actors cast as George and Lennie, so Oberon is blessed in having obtained the services of Jarel Davidow and Ed Jewett. As George, Davidow is less than fully persuasive in the first scene of the play, stressing the character's annoyance at his companion above all else. But he hits his stride thereafter, expertly communicating the myriad emotions that George experiences in looking after the simple-minded Lennie: love, anger, joy, sadness, frustration, etc., many of these feelings occurring almost simultaneously. As for Jewett, the effectiveness of his portrayal stems largely from his decision not to ape the speech of a mentally retarded person. That approach can work, as John Malkovich proved in the 1992 film version of Of Mice and Men, but Jewett's avoidance of stereotype is admirable and allows him to make the role his own. In his hands, Lennie is more of an innocent than an intellectually challenged fellow -- which, if anything, makes his fate seem all the more tragic.

With two exceptions, the rest of the cast members offer performances so detailed and well-calibrated that, if you're lucky enough to attend this production, you may feel you're watching a real-life tragedy unfold. Patrick Melville as Carlson and Scot Carlisle as Wit are, at once, intensely focused and wonderfully understated. Bill Fairbairn is so good as the Boss that you'll wish he had a lot more stage time, and Richard Kohn is so sympathetic as Candy that you'll forgive his occasional stumbling over lines; Candy's attachment to his ancient dog is palpable despite the fact that the animal never actually appears in this production,

David Sitler (rear) and Scot Carlisle
in Of Mice and Men
and the shooting of the poor creature is as pitiful a moment as it should be, thanks to Kohn's reaction. The fact that the talented Timothy Jenkins is younger and far more attractive than most actors cast as the black stable buck Crooks brings an interesting new dimension to the role. And, as Slim, David Sitler exudes so much charisma and quiet authority that it's easy to understand why everyone on the ranch looks up to him.

Given the overall skill of Eric Parness's direction, it's surprising that he let two of his actors get away from him or, possibly, that he misguided them. As Curley, Philip Emeott struts around like a second-rate Brando to the point where he induces audience laughter -- which, I assume, was not his goal. And though Jane Courtney has several nice moments as Curley's wife, she is very stagy at times.

Except for the fact that there are too many set pieces on stage for the scenes that take place in the men's bunkhouse, WT McRae's scenic design is perfection, its sparseness offset by Aaron J. Mason's lighting and Sidney Shannon's costumes. Bravo also to sound designer Michael Juarez for his atmospheric effects -- and for keeping the noise of gunshots loud enough to be effective without startling the audience.

In avoiding cheap sentimentality, this production achieves the level of true tragedy. Of Mice and Men has been running in repertory with a new play, Johnna Adams's Cockfighters, at the Jan Hus Playhouse. There are two more scheduled performances of the Steinbeck, on Sunday and Monday, February 16 and 17. If you don't mind experiencing pity and fear in order to achieve catharsis, as the Greek theatergoers used to do, this show is for you.

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