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[whitespace] 'Of Mice and Men' Drifters Adrift: Friends Lennie (Kevin Blackton) and George (Randall King) encounter trouble as itinerant farmhands.


'Mice' Roars

San Jose Stage keeps Steinbeck's edges rough in 'Of Mice and Men'

By Michael J. Vaughn

AMONG THE GREAT small novels of American literature (The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye), Of Mice and Men is second to none in economy and directness of language. No surprise, then, that John Steinbeck wrote his dialogue-heavy tragedy (while living in Los Gatos) with the express intent of adapting it to the stage, and that it plays so well in the theater.

The success of the San Jose Stage Company's production is no surprise, either, given that two of the company's principal veterans are naturals for the roles of George and Lennie. Company co-founder Randall King has made a career out of edgy tough guys like George, and Kevin Blackton's certainly got the stature--both physical and theatrical--for Lennie. The only obstacle is Blackton's James Earl Jones bass, but in the end it actually serves to create some helpful distance from the much-parodied performance of Lon Chaney Jr. in the classic 1939 film.

The rest of director James Reese's ensemble operates not quite so smoothly. As fellow ranch hands Carlson and Slim, Richard Montgomery and Jonathan Rabette seem to be on a separate page in the pacing department, and the ensemble scenes never travel as comfortably as they should. They're helped out, however, by Don Hiatt as the beleaguered, one-handed ranch helper, Candy. Hiatt's got one of those perfect Okie faces, and, in fact, appeared in TheatreWorks' recent Grapes of Wrath. Another effective distraction was Candy's dog (played by "Foxy"), whose extreme cuteness served to up the pity quotient on the old dog's eventual fate.

Each subsequent visit to Steinbeck's sublime tearjerker brings out another element, and this time I couldn't help noting the undercurrent of humor. The ranch hands conduct a play-long defense of cathouses, and the biggest laugh comes from Candy's observation that the one blown paycheck of his life--spent in a luxurious bordello in Bakersfield--was the only one he ever remembered earning.

There's a bit of local humor, too, thanks to Curly's starry-eyed wife (played by Ailene King), who complains, "I wasn't meant to live like this--I'm from Salinas." And Steinbeck's lifelong flair for vernacular is present, also, in George's description of bedbugs as "pillow pigeons," or his reference to the tempestuous Curly as having "yellow jackets in his drawers."

Of course, some vernacular is not quite so welcome these days as others; the ranch hands toss around the "N" word about as freely as horseshoes, and you could feel the repercussions in the audience. Oddly enough, I usually take that word as a positive sign in works of pre-'50s America, because it indicates that the author is going to do no glossing over of our country's racist past. You can find Steinbeck's eventual intentions in his gruff but sympathetic portrayal of the black stable hand, Crooks (played by Lewis Sims). Unfortunately, many of our country's school boards don't see it quite that way, maintaining the book's place (right beside the aforementioned Huck Finn) as one of the country's most frequently banned works.

The other great roughness of the production is John Harrison York's bunkhouse set, a masterpiece of authenticity. You can just picture York and his crew wandering the countryside, digging up dried-out planks for the project.


Of Mice and Men plays at Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm thru May 6 at the Stage, 490 S. First St, San Jose. Tickets are $16-$30. The theater will present two post-show discussions, April 15 and 19. Members of the company will also appear April 17 at 7pm at Campbell's Barnes & Noble bookstore, the Pruneyard Center, Bascom and Campbell avenues, Campbell. (408.283.7142)

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From the April 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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