MANSFIELD — The Mass Music & Arts Society is currently staging the classic “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck with some highly charged dramatic performances in its Black Box Theatre. But be forewarned: This is not a play for the faint-hearted.
The Steinbeck work draws its title from the Robert Burns poem “To A Mouse,” and specifically the line, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.”
And that sums up the plot. A dark, tragic play set during the Depression, it deals with themes of loneliness, pursuit of the American Dream, and being powerless, which sadly still resonates in today’s society of cyberbullying, the Me Too movement, racial tension and the endless pursuit of many struggling to climb out of poverty. Ultimately, it is a parable about what it is to be human and how we treat each other.
Based on Steinbeck’s experience working as a ranch hand, “Of Mice and Men” tells the story of George Milton and Lenny Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers traveling from town to town looking for work.
The two dream of owning their own ranch, but obstacles stand in the way. Ultimately, it is Lennie, the mentally handicapped giant, who makes George’s dream of owning his own ranch worthwhile. He also has a love for soft things, which will eventually conspire against him mainly because he doesn’t know his own strength. As much as George feels hindered by Lennie, he truly cares for him. They have something that the other characters in the play don’t have: each other.
Justin Pimental plays George. Slight in build next to Brian Gustafson as Lennie, he is perfectly cast in the role. Gustafson, a regular at MMAS, is ideal in his role, too. He has the childlike innocence and the “giant” stature required.
Pimental and Gustafson have a genuine bond on stage, particularly in the final, tragic scene.
As we meet the other inhabitants at this ranch, we get a clear look at how this world may sometimes be cruel. Most are cogs in an uncaring machine and victims of the prejudices of society. Candy, maimed on the job and older, tries to remain useful. His only companion is an old arthritic dog that Carlson, another ranch hand, unfeelingly offers to put down with his gun, a foreshadowing of events ahead.
Bruce Church, another MMAS regular, gives a solid performance as Candy and Wayne Nettnay is no nonsense and appropriately unemotional as Carlson.
Crooks, a black stable hand also injured on the job and left with a crooked back, is a victim of racism. Isolated from the rest, he deals with loneliness with his books and finds himself enjoying the unexpected company of Lennie while the others are out carousing. Aaron P. Roberts portrays Crooks to a tee, even contorting his body to convey the back injury.
Then there is Curly’s wife, a victim of gender bias. Married to the boss’s son, she is abused and neglected by her husband. She too is lonely and in looking for someone, anyone, to talk to, she is labeled a tart or jailbait by the others. But she has dreams as well. Often portrayed more flirtatiously, director Richard Stiles makes a good choice in toning this down a bit. And with Rachel Beth Beauregard’s apt portrayal, allows the audience a better understanding of her character.
Curly is the bully, letting his jealousy get the best of him. He is constantly riding the others, and Jonathan Pierce Jr. carries off this portrayal quite well. His character is said to have a Napoleon complex, and with Pierce’s build and demeanor, it is easy to see.
While the other ranch hands question and don’t quite understand why George travels with Lennie at his side, Slim, the mule line driver, does understand. He has compassion and is well respected. It is his character that brings home Steinbeck’s major theme, which is “if you understand each other, you will be kind to each other.”
Slim states this in other terms when he says to George, “Ain’t many guys travel together, I don’t know why. Maybe the whole world is scared of each other.” Justin Grankewicz handles this role with aplomb and the necessary compassion.
Rounded out with Jonathan Pierce as the Boss and Benjamin Medeiris as Whit, Stiles has commandeered a tight ensemble who ably convey Steinbeck’s themes. The production is well worth the price of the ticket and will give audiences much to ponder as they leave.