George and Lenny are like old friends to high school English students and classic film lovers (they were played by Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. in 1939) as the doomed protagonists in “Of Mice and Men.”
The pair of Depression Era-laborers are so familiar that one could ask why we would want to return with them to that Soledad ranch where their happiest dreams and deepest fears all come to such a tragic end.
But even Steinbeck knew that the intimacy of joining the two mismatched men on stage would have a far different effect from reading them on the printed page. In turning his book into a play, Steinbeck tightened the spaces and heated up the friction between the small gang of ranch workers rubbing against each other in a rough California bunkhouse and barn.
The set for the New Phoenix Theatre Company’s excellent production, playing through April 16, captures that intent. The relatively large cast of nine men and one troublesome woman squeezes years of contained emotion into the tight, drab living quarters, the place where dreams come to die.
That, however, is not where the story starts.
Away from the dangers of the main-stage bunkhouse, a riverside oasis extends out into the New Phoenix audience. The natural, open area where we first meet George and Lenny has room for them to talk freely enough to reveal the odd dynamic that keeps these unlikely friends together.
George is the sharp guy who knows his way around, and John Fredo plays him as a brusque, pragmatic planner. He anticipates trouble and does his damnedest to head it off, lecturing Lenny in the sharp, frustrated language of a parent using tough love.
George knows what he is up against with Lenny, a big man who works like an ox and thinks like a child, and we quickly do, too.
As Lenny Small, Greg Natale is a revelation. The character can be played in a few ways, emphasizing his dependence on George, his insecurity or his problematic emotional instability.
Natale gives us all of those to help us see Lenny as a whole person, a guy who appreciates a joke and who even can imagine a better life, “living off the fat of the land,” as he likes to say.
This Lenny lets us laugh for a little while, so his dream of the little place with a hutch full of rabbits that he could stroke doesn’t seem that impossible. Even though it is.
Lenny and George are such powerful creations that is it easy to forget that Steinbeck filled his story with a small world full of lost souls. The ranch is home to half a dozen folks who wish life could deal them a fresh hand. There’s the injured farmhand Candy, fully realized by Jack Agugliara, who uses the one hand he has left to grab tight to George and Lenny’s dream of independence.
John F. Kennedy as Slim, the mule skinner, knows better, but that hasn’t made him give up his humanity. Crooks (Jonathan Foreman) discovers that being the only black man on the ranch means only that his isolation is more overt, not that he is the only one who is alone.
And then there is Curly’s wife, the unskilled seductress who escaped one trap for a self-made prison she never imagined. She doesn’t even have a name, and Candice Kogut plays her with an anonymous anger that embodies her strongest desire, and it isn’t for sex. She is simply a woman who wants to be seen and heard, in whatever way she can.
Jamie O’Neill as Curley, and John Profeta and Justin Fiordaliso as the other ranch hands round out the cast, with house manager Thomas Scahill doing quick work as The Boss. The show is directed by Kelli Bocock-Natale.
One issue that did come up on opening night: The show was billed as having a two-hour running time. A slightly extended intermission aside, the show went over two and a half hours, indicating that some pacing problems may still need to be worked out.
“Of Mice and Men”
When: Through April 16
Where: New Phoenix Theatre Company, 95 Johnson Park
Tickets: $30 general, $20 for students and seniors. Every Thursday night is pay-what-you-can performances.
Info: 853-1334, newphoenixtheatre.org.