As my seat-neighbor commented at Tacoma Little Theatre on opening night, “Of Mice and Men” is not a happy tale. Not to spoil this American classic for you, but plenty of characters die, including the mice. But it’s vital we keep coming back to themes such as poverty, hope and disconnection, especially in this political hour. And Tacoma Little Theatre’s production gets to the quiet, gutsy heart of John Steinbeck and his all-too-human characters.
Leading the charge here are Mason Quinn and Chris James as George and Lennie, the itinerant farmhands and unlikely friends who draw us into their tough, hard-bitten world with the promise of a far-off dream — some land of their own. This play lives or dies by the ability of whoever plays these two characters, and Quinn and James deliver. Quinn teases apart the rough-edged George to find the deeply caring, idealistic streak that keeps him protecting his childhood friend Lennie, while James embodies the simple-minded Lennie as if the part were written for him. Towering yet gentle, deep-voiced yet starry-eyed, James makes utterly convincing the childish fascination and naiveté that will lead Lennie to his inevitable tragedy.
But Quinn and James, though they hold down the bulk of Steinbeck’s slow, stark dialogue, don’t work in a vacuum. Roger Iverson starts stiff but ends melancholy and pathetic as the old ranch hand Candy, deemed as useless to society as his dog. Jacob Tice plays the lanky mule driver Slim with a taciturn kindness; Margret Parobek as Curley’s wife flips on a dime between flirty trash and lonely innocence, destroying dreams with one thoughtless move.
Slightly disappointing is Derek Mesford as Curley, playing the violent, semi-psychotic rancher’s son more like a fierce poodle. And there were plenty of dropped lines from minor characters on opening night, though most with good recoveries.
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Despite the evocative, minimalistic set of broken fence palings and blue moonlight (Blake York) there are some realistic production touches that bring the Depression-era tale to life: a real pond of water for Lennie to drink, stage smoke for the campfire (be warned: it’s quite an allergy trigger) and a real dog, who completely stole both the scene and the audience’s heart — setting us up perfectly for the heartbreak to come.
But it’s Quinn and James — guided by immaculate pacing by director Niclas Olson — who make this show a must-see, drawing out every inch of pain from that final scene and opening up the play’s raw heart for us all to think about.
Of Mice and Men
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 5.
Where: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma.
Tickets: $24 adults; $22 seniors, students and military; $20 children.
Information: 253-272-2281, tacomalittletheatre.com.