Mice Try

Start with Steinbeck: "They had walked in single file down the path, and even in the open one stayed behind the other...The first man was small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features...Behind him walked his opposite, a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws.''

With those deceptively simple lines, John Steinbeck introduces George Milton and Lennie Small, the hapless Cain and Abel in his 1937 novella Of Mice and Men. And that's how we first see George and Lennie in the Dallas Theater Center's production of Steinbeck's stage version, now playing at the Arts District Theater.

Director Richard Hamburger places the pair, starkly backlit, at the top of scenic designer John Coyne's expansive set, a steep slope of rough-hewn planks mimicking fanning lines of crops in the field. Stoop-shouldered, itinerant "bindle-stiffs'' George (played by Todd Weeks) and Lennie (Sean Runnette) plod forward nearly in slow motion as lights fade up for the first of two acts.

They are dog-tired, parched from a long trek to their next menial job "bucking barley'' on a California spread. The men see water and rush down to the riverbank (on Coyne's set, that's a dry, serpentine slash across the planks). George warns his companion not to drink the muck, but half-witted Lennie ignores him and gulps away. "You gonna be sick like you was last night,'' George says.

There Steinbeck's foreshadowing of danger begins. And in that moment, the pace of DTC's production shifts out of the author's terse, deliberate rhythms into modern hyperspeed. Throughout the scenes that follow, dialogue explodes and actors enter and exit on a dead run. Everything hurtles toward the climactic scene that ends the play with a flash of violence and, in a touch of stagey hokum, a blinding splash of white light.

So what's the hurry?

Steinbeck certainly didn't write it that way. In his novel (originally titled Something That Happened) and his play (written concurrently and rewritten with the help of George S. Kaufman), Steinbeck's slow, deeply organic chords twang through. Of Mice and Men isn't a long piece of literature, the action unfolding over just a few days, but its narrative takes its sweet time grounding the reader in earthy elements. The characters embody the colors and textures of tilled soil, worn leather and baked tar. If you're more than a few pages in--or in the theater, a few scenes--and you can't taste the dust and smell their sweat, then something's been missed.

Director Hamburger's interpretation misses some of it because he doesn't let the actors slow down or let the audience take it all in. He sends Lennie and George on a lickity-split romp, trampling over one of Steinbeck's most important themes--a man's basic desire for a slow, quiet life tied to his own little piece of land away from urban busy-ness. If we can't get some hint of how that looks and feels from what we see onstage, we won't understand why George and Lennie, and later their bunkmates Candy and Crooks, cling to it as the American dream, always out of reach for these poor souls.

In one early scene, a worker named Carlson (Adam Bartley) convinces the elderly "bunk swamper,'' Candy (played with exquisite humility by Dane Knell), that Candy should let him shoot his ailing dog. "Ain't nothin' left for him,'' Carlson says to the old man. "Can't eat, can't see, can't even walk without hurtin'.'' Candy reluctantly relents, and Carlson leads the dog out of the bunkhouse, past George, Lennie and a rangy mule skinner named Slim (Robert Prentiss).

Here's how Steinbeck describes what happens: "The silence fell on the room again. A minute passed, and another minute. Candy lay staring at the ceiling. Slim gazed at him for a moment and then looked down at his hands; he subdued one hand with the other, and held it down. There came a little gnawing sound from under the floor and all the men looked down toward it gratefully. Only Candy continued to stare at the ceiling.''

After a long pause, the shot goes off far away. We know there'll be another fired before the play is over. Steinbeck's clues aren't subtle.

But neither, unfortunately, is Hamburger's directing in this key scene. His actors rush ahead, obliterating pauses and denying the audience Steinbeck's tension-building wait for that fatal gunshot. Given just a little more time, what transpires in this scene and again at the end of the play not only would be better anticipated but more deeply felt. As it is, bodies of puppies and people (more than one of each) pile up too quickly, and we don't get that emotional tug from characters and their tragic mistakes that we might if we were allowed to sit in silence and feel it in the gut.

That contemporary shading extends to some of the performances, too, particularly Brett Brock as the young bunk hand, Whit, and the fidgety Lorca Simons as "Curley's wife,'' the only woman in the play. The acting by these two feels forced and overly exuberant, altogether too upbeat and slick.

Despite the hurdy-gurdy pacing, however, there is a lot to admire about this production. The technical details are nearly perfect. Costumes by Miguel Angel Huidor are as faded and dingy as old hides. The lighting design by Marcus Doshi floods the enormous set with hazy streaks of sunlight and shadow.

The all-Equity cast creates a believable community of misfits, men beaten to the heels by poverty and loneliness. As George, Todd Weeks has the murine face Steinbeck describes, and he delivers the clipped prose with a flatness that fits the landscape sprawled behind him. Weeks lets his George always list slightly to one side, arms dangling limp as a scarecrow's as he fills Lennie's head with promises of farms and rabbits and eternal friendship.

Robert Prentiss is a smart choice as Slim, the bunkhouse authority, handsomer and cleaner than the rest of the ragged fraternity. He's the one who understands the deep connection between Lennie and George, and it will be Slim who'll become George's protector later on.

Jerry Russell is fine as The Boss. And as the "stable buck,'' Crooks, the black man segregated from the others' horseshoe games, Stanley Wayne Mathis is heartbreakingly dignified.

Though it seems on the surface to be George's story, Of Mice and Men really is Lennie's play, and lantern-jawed Sean Runnette makes a memorable Lennie. He's George's Jungian shadow, a frightened man-child soothed by George's constant repetition of the "land-dream'' and the touch in his huge, calloused hands of something soft (dead mouse, rabbit, woman's hair). It's Lennie alone who sees his dream come true by the end of the play. The rest must return to hardscrabble failure.

On page or stage, Of Mice and Men is a profound condemnation of the emptiness of the American material ideal. If the performance at DTC is just short of breathtaking, it's because it never slows down for those scant moments needed to let Steinbeck's powerful words hang a little longer in the air.