Of Mice and Men, a tragedy of friendship

No one captured the American zeitgeist during the time of the Great Depression more definitively than John Steinbeck. His “Of Mice and Men” is a gripping tale that examines the human spirit and the power – and tragedy – of friendship.

The Chenango River Theatre in Greene is closing out its 2010 season with the Steinbeck classic, which debuted last week and runs through Oct. 24. It seems a bit odd to call a 70-plus year old tale timely, but the themes of “Of Mice and Men” still ring true today. We still dream of being our own boss; we still draw strength from the bonds of brotherhood; we still destroy that which we love the most.

The setting is, of course, in the late 1930s, somewhere in the vast agricultural valleys of northern California. George (Jack Harris) and Lennie (Ted Nappi) are itinerant workers, bouncing from one farm to another in search of work and, ultimately, a better life. No matter how desolate things seem to be, the American Dream still gives people like George and Lennie the strength to keep going. Their dreams are simple – to own a little piece of land of their own, and to be the masters of their own destinies. Lennie’s dream is actually the simpler of the two, because he is, as they say, a simple man. Although politically incorrect now, the people of their time would have called him retarded. All Lennie wants is to tend rabbits on his little plot of land and do well by George.

George is the more pragmatic of the two, trying desperately to keep Lennie on an even keel and work toward their goal. He knows that Lennie’s simple nature can sometimes lead him to do unexpected, terrible things. That’s exactly what he wants to avoid in their new workplace, but bullies like Curley (David Melissaratos) don’t make it easy. At the new ranch, they’re befriended by sad old coot Candy (Michael Arcesi), who wants in on their dream of emancipation. Slim (Steven Patterson) is the wise ranch foreman who sees Lennie for what he really is – a childlike mind belied by brutish strength. It’s a combination which proves to be lethal.

I’m pretty sure I read “Of Mice and Men” first in high school, and then again in college. It’s one of those American classics that runs the risk of being over-taught – a literary masterpiece that loses its potency because it becomes “homework.” And it’s not an easy tale to swallow, often dark and disturbing with the killing of innocent animals, the dehumanization of the mentally deficient and the message that often, dreams really don’t come true. But seeing it performed live on stage breathes a fresh new life into a tried and true staple. The cast of CRT’s production here is stellar as always; Nappi captures Lennie’s innocence and malevolence at the same time, while Harris is heartbreaking as the kind-hearted friend who’s pushed to show the darkest side of compassion. Standing out, too, is Kristen Kittel as Curley’s wife (the tramp never does get a name). A fish out of water in the flat, unforgiving world in which they live, her dreams prove to be her undoing as well.

So yeah, not the feel-good play of the fall by any means – but that’s exactly what the Chenango River Theatre does so well, in my opinion. Their 2010 season was as diverse as they come; just a month or so ago, I was rolling in the aisles at the comedy and catchiness of “The Marvelous Wonderettes.”

“Of Mice and Men” is everything you’d expect it to be – harsh, powerful, soul-searching and bleak – and yes, I highly recommend it.

Co-produced by IBM and Naima & Ara Kradjian, “Of Mice and Men” also features Nick Tyler, Tim Douglas, Nick Stagliano and Bergin Michaels and is directed by Bill Lelbach. Regular performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30, plus Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., now through Oct. 24 at Chenango River Theatre, 991 State Highway 12, Greene. For ticket information, visit www.chenangorivertheatre.org.

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