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Theater Review: Of Mice and Men

PC: Jack Grace
Alexis Dascoulias’ production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” is a master class of stage craft. The profound story of George (played by Don Carlson) and Lenny (played by Frances Taua), two poor, dissimiliar but deeply attached men, roaming the country in search of work and solicitude, has been given new life on The Historic Iao Theater stage. This is a production that will linger in the mind and heart long after the final curtain call. Yes, it’s that good.

As the simple-minded, sweet but quite dangerous Lenny and practical, resilient but weathered George take on a manual labor stint, their meager accommodations and grueling work leave them dreaming of a better tomorrow.

Dascoulias’ production never steps wrong, neither on nor behind the stage. As I entered the Historic Iao Theater and basked at the towering, evocative set, signifying both man-made achievement and early 20th century struggle, I was pulled in immediately. The top of the show is a two-person scene, dialog and character-driven, with a stillness of movement countered by the weight and playful attentiveness of the acting. This isn’t two actors bouncing lines off of one another but a recreation of Steinbeck’s true intent and an interpretation with tremendous power and human authenticity. The sound design by Dawn Harper (Kealoha), lighting design by Amy Lord and set design by Caro Walker immerse the senses and are as intimate and subtle as they are awe-inducing.

Carlson gives a touching performance, giving George a lived-in quality that is recognizable and relatable. George is a man with rough hands who fights against his steadily fading future. He is Lenny’s keeper and protector, a quality that comes across in the natural chemistry between the actors. Taua’s work as Lenny is a privilege to witness. Taua’s rendering of the character is vivid and nuanced, an intelligent interpretation of a definitively child-like but painfully tender man.

As strong as the leads are, this isn’t a two-person show but an ensemble piece where every performer is digging deep.

The actors embody the pain, inner longing and a depleted sense hope. No one pushes an accent but the cast seems to have an ear for Depression-era patter.

I loved the way Daniel Vicars found the qualities in Slim that are endearing and, like George, worn down by a hard life. I was moved by Jonathan Yudis’ conveying the tortured existence of Candy, whose optimism in George and Lenny’s “big plan” is every bit as crushing as the fate of his oldest friend. I enjoyed the exhausting stubbornness of James Reid’s Curley, who amusingly spends most of his scenes running around, searching for possible acts of infidelity. What a pleasure to hear the rat-a-tat patter of Orion Milligan’s Whit and to recognize the unimpressed authority in Frank Hayes’ Boss. How novel to see Jim Oxborrow play arguably the most unsympathetic character (who commits a loathsome act) and still make me clearly see how practical and understandable Carlson’s motivations are.

Rueben Carrion plays Crooks, the sole black worker living at the bunkhouse. The character is a potential trap for an actor, as the opportunity for stereotyping is there. It is to Carrion’s credit that he gives layers, an inner pain and intelligence to the character that isn’t entirely detectable on the written page. Frankly, I’ve never seen another actor play the role this well.

Lia De Souza plays Curley’s Wife, whose crippling loneliness is expressed through outward expressions of lust and flirtation. It’s a stylish performance, as De Souza expresses her character’s alluring manner, but with a barely eclipsed anguish underneath. There’s an element of danger in both Taua and De Souza’s characters, as they’re both (in very different ways) trouble makers and socially inacceptable. In their key scene together, the suspense is rich and unsettling. Even if one knows how the play’s most famous scene ends, you may still not be prepared for the impact it leaves. Everyone involved with this production, on stage  and off, is performing at a high caliber.

Candy’s pet is played by Gus the dog (yes, a real dog) and a live puppy pops up in another moment. I mention this not to be cute, as having live animals on stage is a real risk and isn’t used here to manipulate audience emotion. Instead, it all connects to a line De Souza casually remarks in the second act- “we’re all mutts.” The line comments on the desperate connection these characters make to the only companions they have. These men, and certainly Curley’s wife, are looking for affection, hope and comfort and not finding any. They are all lost animals, tender-hearted and doomed.

Is “Of Mice and Men” a tough drama? Absolutely. Live theater tends to lean heavily towards musicals and bubbly entertainment…which I enjoy, of course. However, it is rare to see an adult-minded, complex and gripping drama, let alone an undisputed masterpiece, performed on stage. Along with their recent triumph of “Cabaret” earlier this year, here’s another theater performance that will go down as a classic, an un-missable rendering of an important and timeless work.

There are $10.00 student tickets available for any performance. I highly recommend this show for everyone, but especially for young people. For students and everyone else, what Dascoulias and her team have accomplished here is a thing to savor.

Of Mice and Men plays at The Historic Iao Theater from April 27-May 13th. Tickets are available at mauionstage.com or by calling 808-242-6969.

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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