John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men may sound like an odd choice for a young theatre company like Hardline Theatre to tackle, but in these skilled hands it only proves that good storytelling can be transcendent.
Written in 1937, Steinbeck’s gritty novella and subsequent stage version of life during The Great Depression comes to life thanks to a willingness of this dynamic theatre company to take risks.
The first of these risks is to stage the production in the tiny Little Mountain Gallery performance space where at first glance it is impossible to see how it can possibly contain Steinbeck’s story. But like many other intelligent decisions in this production, director Genevieve Fleming uses its intimacy to place the focus on the relationships rather than some of the grander themes Steinbeck explores.
The language of the day is also a huge risk which has been the subject of frequent attack over the years by censors. Rather than hide or accentuate its language though, there is a straightforward presentation of the material that never feels uncomfortable for both actor and audience; this was the reality of the time and Fleming and her cast respect its place within its historical context.
Not content with a straight performance of this classic story though, Fleming takes another risk with the addition of live musicians and Foley artists. And while admittedly the addition of music has become de rigueur for theatre in recent years, it is the decision to add live sound effects that is surprisingly fitting and effective. From the moment Foley artists Matthew MacDonald-Bain and Malcolm Dow begin we are transported to a different time, and while a novelty at first, the two quickly fade into the background to simply underscore the action as it unfolds.
Risks aside, it is largely up to the actors to bring these characters from another era to life, and this cast delivers.
The portrayal of Lennie as the large man with the small intellect can be risky for an actor, but here Sebastian Kroon manages to make him sympathetic and real. As with the language, this is a straightforward presentation that never feels forced or a caricature.
Sean Harris Oliver gives a terrific performance as Lennie’s companion. Always in control, we feel his pain, frustration and sorrow as George’s protector, but it is the subtleties in his belief that they are destined for something more that rings loudest.
Among a cast of terrific performances though it is Alec Willows’ performance as the elderly swamper Candy and Jesse Martyn as the intelligent and kind jerkline skinner, Slim that stand out. Willows is particularly effective here as a man initially resigned to his fate who finds faint hope in George and Lennie at the end of a very long tunnel. As Willows drags his near dead dog across the stage floor we feel his pain and celebrate with him when life seemingly delivers him a way out of his long suffering. There is a brightness to Martyn’s performance as Slim that belies the circumstances, and the kindness he shows to Lennie is underscored by his fascination with the idea that two men are traveling together during a time when isolation may be the only way to protect oneself.
The rest of this cast provides equally effective support to the story. Christine Quintana gives a tremendous performance as the long-suffering wife and as she and Lennie talk of their disparate dreams there is an innocence that makes her fate even more tragic. Adrian Neblett plays the black farmhand Crooks with hope and while a tad overstated at times, Amitai Marmorstein is bulldog menacing as Curley. Robert Olguin, Raes Calvert and Matthew Bissett round out the supporting cast with believable performances.
The production is helped by Jenn Stewart’s simple set design and her carefully curated props, no small feat inside the confines of Little Mountain Gallery. Christopher David Gauthier’s costumes are as realistic and gritty as the story.
While not usually one for hyperbole, this is as good as it gets. Of Mice and Men now sits on the top of my running list of the best shows of 2013. Do yourself a favour and go see this talented bunch and find out why.
By John Steinbeck. Directed by Genevieve Fleming. A Hardline Productions presentation. On stage at Little Mountain Gallery through October 26, 2013. Visit http://hardlineproductions.ca for tickets and information.