George (Dan Rowlands) and Candy (Keith Arlington) confront Curley’s wife (Jennie Russo) as Lennie (Phil Brady) pouts in the foreground, in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” running through March 25, at CNY Playhouse in Shoppingtown DeWitt. (Amelia Beamish Photo)
By Russ Tarby
CNY Playhouse has revived John Steinbeck’s classic Depression-Era tragedy, “Of Mice and Men,” running through March 25, at its intimate theater at Shoppingtown DeWitt.
As a vocal version of Stephen Foster’s mournful “Hard Times Come Again No More” precedes the opening scene here, Steinbeck’s story focuses on two drifters, George, played by manly man Dan Rowlands and his friend, Lennie, played by fleshy-faced Phil Brady.
The unlikely duo of drifters often daydream about living off the “fat of the land.” In a vain effort to buy their own small farm, they hire on at a Northern California ranch to accumulate enough money to raise a stake.
Lennie is a man-child, a little boy in the body of a dangerously powerful man. His obsessions with things soft and cuddly have made George cautious. His promise to allow Lennie to “tend the rabbits” on their future farm keeps Lennie calm, but after the two settle into the rhythm of ranch life, Lennie’s strong hands unintentionally sabotage their future plans.
Brady’s portrayal of the sweet but slow-witted Lennie easily wins over audiences, while Rowlands’ George is a far more conflicted character who flips from winning story-teller to whining sad sack in the blink of an eye. Meanwhile, Lennie repeatedly promises not to do anything bad on the ranch the way he did touching that girl’s red dress up in Weed.
After Scene One’s two-man exposition unfolds at stage left, the play — ably directed by Kasey Marie Polly — noticeably picks up steam when the action shifts to the ranch’s rustic bunkhouse at center stage. As George and Lennie join the crew “bucking barley,” their bosses and co-workers slowly get to know the new guys.
The supporting cast members, all adapting a twangy Western line of talk, stand tall as redwoods. Especially effective is David Simmons as no-nonsense Slim, Keith Arlington as the damaged Candy and Donovan Stanfield as the crew’s lone Negro muleskinner, Crooks. Dave Spiro appears as Boss, while Steve Rowlands plays the gun-toting Carlson and Matt Gordon offers comic relief as wily Whit.
The play’s primary antagonists — Curley and his voluptuous wife — are well-played by Tyler Ianuzi and Jennie Russo. Ianuzi flashes a mocking, grimacing grin that well suits his insecure character while Russo pours her heart and soul into the misunderstood, lonely newlywed, even as the bunkhouse boys gripe that she’s a “tart.”
A couple of technical details might rub some audience members the wrong way. Liam Fitzpatrick’s ambitious lighting design has lowly hung backlights shining through the massive wooden slats that comprise the set. The resulting noirish effect would be impressive, except that those lights — some blue, some white — shine directly into audience eyes, distracting them from the action.
Similarly distracting is the fact that Lennie’s unfortunate habit of petting small animals to death is merely imagined rather than seen. Instead, dead mice and a puppy remain invisible objects in his big hands. When he accidentally kills a human being, however, her death is anything but invisible.
No prop master was listed in the credits. Maybe that explains the lack of carcasses.
Despite those two missteps, however, this “Of Mice and Men” will long be remembered as one of CNY Playhouse’s most moving productions.
“Of Mice and Men,” produced by Justin Polly, runs at 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 16, 17 and 18, at 2 p.m. March 19, and 8 p.m. March 23, 24 and 25, at CNY Playhouse, located near the Macy’s entrance at on the second level of Shoppingtown Mall. Tickets cost $15 on Thursday and Sunday and $17 on Friday and Saturday; cnyplayhouse.org; 885-8960.