Farmer's Branch — The Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch is staging a remarkable production of John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men, which was written so that it could also be performed as a play (George S. Kaufman staged it on Broadway that same year). The Depression-era drama, directed by Tyler Jeffrey Adams, follows migrant farm workers George Milton and Lennie Small as they set up camp on the Salinas Riverbank.
It is clear from the beginning that Lennie is intellectually disabled. He finds it difficult to remember things, he keeps a dead mouse in his pocket so he can stroke its soft fur on the long journey, and he unintentionally kills small animals because he’s not aware of his own strength. George, who has known him for a long time, watches out for Lennie as they travel looking for employment.
The men are making their way to a new job to work the fields near Soledad. The city’s name in Spanish means solitude, which is a major theme of the story. One of the things that helps ease George and Lennie’s solitude, besides their commitment to one another, is their dream to one day settle down on their own farm to “live off the fat of the land.”
In the second scene at the bunkhouse we meet the rest of the characters. There’s the Boss, his jealous hothead son Curley, and Curley’s lonely, bored wife, who is desperate for attention and someone to talk to. The other workers include the respected Slim, the old and weary Candy, ranch hands Carlson and Whit, and Crooks, a distrustful stable hand who lives by himself out by the barn.
Both lead actors give outstanding performances. Gafford is sympathetic as George, the concerned caretaker who has to make the tragic decision about how best to deal with Lennie. \Massey is compelling as the too-strong-for-his-own-good simpleton Lennie without the slightest hint of exaggeration. Individually, they are strong actors, but they shine as a duo. Their interactions are touching and heartrending, culminating in a raw and powerful final scene.
Equally commendable is Sonny Franks as Candy, the aging, impaired handyman who sees his own obsolescence on the horizon. The grief his character experiences at the death of his dog is palpable, as is the elation he feels when he latches on to George and Lennie’s dream of having a place of their own.
Despite the size of the role, much of the plot hinges on the scene in Crooks’ room. For this reason, the actor who plays Crooks has an important role to play. Nik Blocker deftly manages the role of the cynical and aloof stable hand, who, despite himself, wants to believe in a better future.
Katie Moyes Williams’ portrayal of Curley’s wife is worth mentioning as well. In Williams’ capable hands, this character’s desperate loneliness overshadows any cloying seduction the male characters can accuse her of.
Some aspects of the 81-year-old play are unsurprisingly dated. There is a misogynistic thread that runs throughout, for example, and Curley’s wife, who doesn’t even warrant her own name—the character is only ever referred to as “Curley’s wife”—takes the brunt of it. Some of the epithets that the men use for her include “tramp,” “bitch,” “tart,” and “jailbait.” When Candy addresses her corpse as “You goddamned tramp,” the audience breaks out in unintentional giggles because it rightly reads as the outlandish zenith of sexist victim blaming. Such aspects, though, do not detract from the production’s strengths.
Director Adams deserves credit for bringing together this skilled cast and talented crew. Live musical interludes, with actors playing harmonica and guitar, are a nice touch for scene transitions. Hope Cox’s costume design is appropriate for the period and remains suitably understated. The lighting design by Cassondra Plybon-Harbin fits the mood of the scenes well. (It probably isn’t worth mentioning, but during the reviewed performance, one of the stage lights went rogue and began flashing and spinning during the climactic scene in the barn.)
Horizontal planks define the set, suggesting the exterior of a barn and the rustic shacks that itinerant fieldworkers for a season call home. By swinging open the doors, we enter the interior where the farmhands bunk. The impressive set design by Jason Leyva and Dennis Williams can engulf the entire stage, shrink down to Crook’s isolated and constrained lean-to, or fade away in the background, as in the opening and closing scenes by the Salinas River. Master carpenter Williams and Caleb Pieterse built the set. This crew’s accomplishment warrants high praise.
Of Mice and Men remains a classic of American literature for several reasons. Its harsh indictment of the American Dream during the Great Depression still has something relevant to say to us today. Its depiction of race and gender relations, as well as class relations, remains just as valid today as in 1937. The Firehouse Theatre does a superb job breathing new life into the story without it feeling didactic. Even if you think you already know everything there is to know about one of Steinbeck’s greatest works, this production shouldn’t be missed.