Jacob Sidney (left) and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper in "Of Mice and Men." Photo by Aaron Rumley
The stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” may be just “the next best thing” to reading the 1937 novella, but it contains a dramatic potency all ifs own. Steinbeck’s words seamlessly transfer from one medium to the other, as does the lyricism of his statements about loneliness and about the hardest to comprehend of life’s tragic inevitabilities. As demonstrated by North Coast Repertory Theatre’s at-once brutal and understated production of the play (which also debuted in 1937, in San Francisco), the live action can heighten the anxieties of the storytelling and the truths inherent in Steinbeck’s discourse on humanity. The tension inside the theater at North Coast Rep, for example, is excruciating in the weighty moments precipitating the “mercy killing” of an old dog, and later, when the childlike goliath Lennie (Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) is alone with the flirtatious wife of a hothead ranch hand.
Director Richard Baird has conceived an adaptation that is startling in its sequences of violence, yet wistful and even tender in its depiction of two unlikely, Depression-era friends reaching for a shared dream: a little farm where the protective George (Jacob Sidney) and manchild Lennie can live off “the fat of the land.” This is a lengthy production (three acts, with an intermission) but a well-paced one true to the narrative’s ever-present apprehensions.
While Sidney and especially Mongiardo-Cooper are outstanding, they are not alone in vividly inhabiting Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley ranch characters. John Greenleaf is affecting as the desperately hopeful old Candy, who longs to join George and Lennie in a better life somewhere. J. Stephen Brantley exudes all the goodness that is inside the laconic jerkline skinner Slim. Laurence Brown, as Crooks, the one black man on the ranch, richly embodies a figure who is, like Lennie, an outsider, and who most expresses the story’s undercurrent of loneliness.
“Of Mice and Men” – the novella and the play – is 80 years old now, but it’s hard to imagine a time when its view of a world both merciless and merciful won’t matter. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 10/25/17.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.