By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
We're lucky that some of the great American dramas have graced Dallas stages in recent seasons. To Kill a Mockingbird, Inherit the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath all feature leading characters with a conscience, and they explore with great literary style important themes about justice and enlightenment of the human soul. You know, things Americans used to revere. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is part of that theatrical canon, too, though it's a much darker play (adapted by Steinbeck from his own novella) with a less-than-hopeful climax.
If you saw local productions of any of these titles over the past couple of years, you might recognize something they all had in common: actor Van Quattro, who was in all of them. He's currently playing Lennie in Theatre Arlington's Of Mice and Men, where he leads as solid a collection of strong character actors as you'd want for this play.
Quattro, now in his 50s, came to North Texas after a long career in Hollywood playing heavies and cops on TV dramas including Picket Fences and Millennium, plus roles in movies including End of Days and Fight Club (which he will talk about, but only if you ask nicely). He relocated for family reasons to Fort Worth and gave up acting until about three years ago when he started auditioning again. Dallas Theater Center immediately cast him as Boo Radley in Mockingbird, where his performance brought attention from other theaters, including Addison's WaterTower, where he was in Grapes of Wrath, and Theatre Three, where he starred in Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts. Second Thought Theatre gave him a great leading role as the creepy one-handed killer in Martin McDonagh's A Behanding in Spokane. Quattro burst onto the scene in such a big way that the DFW Theater Critics Forum named him 2012's top "emerging artist."
Of Mice and Men
Continues through November 10 at Theatre Arlington, 305 W. Main St., Arlington. Call 817-275-7661.
If he has an actor "type," it's about how Van Quattro shares some of the attributes that make John Malkovich, Christopher Walken and Billy Bob Thornton so interesting to watch. A little shifty-eyed but handsome. A bit dangerous but with a subtle, surprising softness. Something about his piercing gaze, the jut of his jaw. And the depth of his acting.
As Lennie, a character often played as a low-IQ monster, Quattro does something altogether fresh alongside Elias Taylorson's George in TA's Of Mice and Men. He puts Lennie on the autism spectrum, making the character shy and overly dependent on George, who is his smaller but wiser companion and protector. The men are traveling together in Depression-era California, looking for jobs as ranch hands after some unpleasantness involving a woman. "I like to pet nice things, soft things," he says. At the top of the play, Lennie's caressing a dead mouse between his thumb and forefinger, a gesture Quattro has Lennie doing even when he's not holding anything. Lennie has a habit of accidentally killing things he loves when he loves them too hard. That could be a mouse, a puppy or a person.
Of Mice and Men is a play about fear and loneliness, specifically the loneliness of poor men who have no family and no home of their own. "A guy goes nuts if he don't have nobody," says Crooks, an old black ranch worker played beautifully by Dennis Raveneau. "I seen guys go crazy from loneliness for land."
George and Lennie have only each other and they're wary of making friends in the bunkhouse on the ranch where they've just been hired to "buck barley" for $50 a month. They talk endlessly of saving enough to buy their own little chunk of farmland, where George could raise livestock and vegetables and they could take a day off anytime they wished. Lennie's obsession is to have rabbit hutches full of furry companions. When Lennie spills their plan to Crooks during a visit to the man's shabby room at the back of the barn, Crooks wants to join them. So does Candy (Kit Hussey), a gimped-up older hand whose ancient dog limps along beside him.
The lovely thing about Theatre Arlington's staging of this play in a 199-seat space is how quiet and stripped down to the essentials it is. There's no extraneous business in Melanie Mason's direction. Scenery designed by Tony Curtis is big — the bunkhouse revolves to become the barn interior — but not so cumbersome that it interrupts the flow of scenes (running time is just over two hours). Faces and voices fit their roles, especially Quattro as a Lennie who exists on a different plane than everybody else. Here's an actor who really thinks about how to make a character come to life and then doesn't make the moves so obvious that you can see the acting happening. Taylorson, one of Dallas theater's most reliable chameleons, gives the hard-edged George enough vulnerability to convince us he cares about Lennie. The two actors complement each other's strengths.
Hussey and Raveneau, longtime theater veterans hereabouts, play men whose physical afflictions reflect deep inner pain. As Slim, a young worker, Gabriel Whitehurst talks and moves like a guy who's done outdoor labor. Eugene Chandler, Gregory Alan Cooke and E. Scott Arnold — all good in smaller roles. Parker Fitzgerald plays Curley, the boss' spoiled son. He's a little young for the part, but he's all right. The only bit of miscasting is Nikki McDonald as Curley's wife, a flirty girl who gets in the way of George and Lennie's big dream. Against the naturalistic acting styles of everyone around her, McDonald's shout-y overacting makes her seem like she just skipped in by mistake from the talent competition of a second-rate beauty pageant.
By the way, you'll be hearing more about Of Mice and Men in the near future. A Broadway revival is in the works starring, get this, James Franco as George and Irish comedian (and Bridesmaids' good guy) Chris O'Dowd as Lennie. Of mice and men and marquee celebrities.