TheatreWorks' 'Of Mice and Men' Stays True to Steinbeck

The show currently at the Center for the Performing Arts revives a modern American classic and reminds the audience of themes still relevant in society today.

 Sacrifice only goes so far. Dreams take you the rest of the way.

," the classic John Steinbeck story of friendship, loyalty, hope and survival premiered on Saturday night at the .

The story of two friends, George–the smart, strategizing, mature man–and Lennie–the innocent, hard-working, but unpredictably violent one, dependent on George’s caretaking and guidance–moved audiences to laughter and tears throughout the three hour show and to standing ovation afterward. But without the stellar cast and crew, this tale could have fallen short.

Produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, the cast delivered a phenomenal performance enhanced by the deliberate guidance of Director Robert Kelly, and detailed attention of Set, Costume, Lighting and Sound Designers: Tom Langguth, Allison Connor, Steven B. Mannshardt and Jeff Mockus.

In the role of George, Jos Viramontes captured a sensitive and thoughtful soul who like some of the characters dreamt of one day being his own boss. But George's dream included Lennie, a kid he began to look after apparently when the boy's last living relative died. Steinbeck never disclosed why George decided to do this, however Viramontes words and actions made it clear, without hesitation, that he would do anything for Lennie.

This chemistry between Viramontes and AJ Meijer, in the role of Lennie, is at the center of the play. Both actors live in Southern California and have become fast friends here in the South Bay—in Steinbeck country. Viramontes shared that on his drive up from Hollywood, he stopped in Soledad, CA, the setting for 'Of Mice and Men.'

"It was cool to see that this was what he wrote about," Viramontes said. "It sounds kind of cliché, but if felt like home, like this was where I should be."

Likewise Meijer, a Santa Monica resident, has enjoyed the connection the audience, and the region, has with the play and Steinbeck.

"It sounded so perfect that TheatreWorks was doing this," Meijer said. "I knew it was going to be special. To have jokes land like they do, like when Lena [Hart] says 'I'm from Salinas.'"

"Even if you're asleep you would get it," he said.

To prepare for his role of Lennie, Meijer explained he read a lot of Steinbeck and biographies of the people who played Lennie, including that of James Earl Jones. Meijer added that Jones had a lot to say because he had actually met Steinbeck and his notes became very instructional.

"Lennie is like a big kid," said Meijer. "Other people have played him like a big lug, but I’m a big child. I like laughing and am playful, and that’s the direction I wanted to go in."

The tension of Lennie's mental disability, his obsession with soft furry things and his incontrolable strength and violence–beautifully played by Meijer–was delicately raised by the director. Kelley said that Lennie's behavior wasn't based on a specific set of symptoms, but that it's clear in the speech pattern and in the book.

"A lot of people in the book called him 'crazy,' but people in the 1930s didn't understand who they are as human beings," Kelley said. "We've come a long way."

Kelley also purposefully chose to make the characters of George and Lennie Chicanos.

"It's not in the play or the book," Kelley said, "but Steinbeck's written about Chicano workers extensively like in "Tortilla Flat," and in this play it looked to me like it would work."

The only female character Curley's Wife played by Lena Hart, demonstrated the complicated life of women at the time—especially women on ranches full of men who came and went, while they remained unable to follow their dreams too.

"It’s think that this is a beautiful story that touches everyone," said Hart, an Oakland resident, who recently moved from New York City. "It's a human story. Steinbeck is an incredible writer of stories of friendship, loneliness and being able to fill this void inside of everybody."

Designed by Langguth, the simple but functional set of hills, fields of grain and wood panels creatively moved to become a riverbank, a building with bunk beds and barn. The soft lighting by Connor gently transported the audience through the three days the play takes place over.

It was at the peaceful riverbank where George and Lennie returned for that final duologue of the play—for the lonely, aspirational, emotional and unfortunate sequence—and where the audience witnesses the difficult choice that George has to make.

"It was extremely well done," said Jim Pardee of Los Gatos who attended with his wife.

The boisterous attendees lingered in the lobby of the CPA and exchanged analysis and commentary about the performance. It appeared it had been a success.

"I've seen it on stage before and this is a production like no other," said patron Jim Carroll, who drives down from Richmond for plays. "I loved the choice of Lennie and George being Chicanos. TheatreWorks has a long history of doing non-traditional casting and it’s perfectly suited to the time and place."

"It’s a great story and a beautiful performance," he said.

'" continues at the Center for the Performancing until Apr. 29th.

Lisa Schmidt April 12, 2012 at 04:03 PM
My 16 year old daughter and I attended the 4/11 performance. It was outstanding! The two leads were superb and we're still discussing the story the next day. It was very thought provoking and I would highly recommend taking teenagers to see the performance.
Claudia Cruz (Editor) April 12, 2012 at 07:50 PM
Thanks for the comment Lisa. I actually hadn't read the book, so I was experiencing it without any preconceived notions. My friends and I definitely sat around and discussed it for hours afterward too.
randy albin April 12, 2012 at 08:54 PM
some years ago i was in many productions put on by the palo alto players. this looks like a really good show. remember the national steinbeck museum in salinas. kudos to robert kelley and theatreworks. it really requires dedicated people to put together these fine shows


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