By Roger McBain, Evansville Courier & Press
November 12 2010
The University of Southern Indiana Theatre takes the audience right into the bunkhouse, the barn and a meadow clearing, delivering a dramatically close encounter with George, Lenny, Candy and the and everyone else on the ranch in the stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Depression Era classic, “Of Mice and Men.”
Staged in the round in the Mallette Studio Theatre, director Eric Altheide’s team of student designers, players and technicians delivered an intimate, immediate and often intense look at the disconnected lives of desperate men, cut loose from family, community and civil society in the production’s 21/4-hour opening performance.
The intimacy of the theater, which sold out at 101 seats, Thursday, showcased the production’s rustic atmosphere, its imaginative staging and some engaging performances.
The proximity also amplified some opening night problems, however, including some overpowering and distracting sound and atmospheric elements, an unfortunate prop failure and some uneven acting among the cast, which included 10 students and one dog.
The story revolves around the often strained, but never broken bond between Lenny, a childlike character with a good heart, weak mind and a remarkable physical strength, and George, the lifelong friend who shepherds Lenny along as they move from ranch to ranch seeking work.
Lenny’s mental and emotional retardation combine with his physical strength to make him unintentionally dangerous, even to things he adores. He accidentally injures and kills the mice he loves to carry and pet, and his confused encounters with other people keep him and George on the run, as they lose job after job.
Even so, their dream of owning a small farm someday, where Lenny can feed and pet the rabbits, calms Lenny in agitated moments. Their bond and their dream even inspire hopes for some of the other hired hands they encounter in the bunkhouse when they sign on at yet another ranch.
The potential for disaster doubles, here, though, in the form of the ranch owner’s belligerently insecure son, Curly, and the wandering eyes of Curly’s attention-starved young bride.
The opening night performance featured strong performances from several actors. Kevin Bickwermert embodied Lenny with an endearing, childlike innocence and anxiousness and a physical power that belied the actor’s actual size.
Jeremy Brailsford offered a solid, reassuring presence as George, complaining, but always returning to look after Lenny. Unfortunately, a critical prop failure in the final scene undercut some of the power of George’s ultimate act of love for his friend, Thursday.
Kaleb Sullivan and Preston Harris-Dunlap were engaging, comical and grounding presences, respectively, as Candy, the one-handed bunkhouse swamper, and Crooks, the only African American on the ranch. Both made their yearning palpable, as they grasped to hitch their hopes onto George and Lenny’s improbable dream.
Vince Davey’s barnwood scenic design immersed the audience in George and Lenny’s world, effectively illuminated by Sean Nicholl’s dynamic lighting. Michael Frohbieter’s sound design evoked the rural ranch setting, but sometimes overpowered and distracted from the action and emotions on stage with loud and confusing effects.