The Endicott Performing Arts Center gave EPAC regular Dallas Elwood his directorial debut last night (Friday, April 1) with a production of John Steinbeck’s play Of Mice and Men (based on his novella). The three-act play, performed with one intermission and set in and around a Depression-era California ranch, was co-directed by Matt Gaska, another face familiar to local audiences.
Elwood is set to graduate in May from SUNY Broome’s theater department; Gaska graduated from Binghamton University’s theater program last spring. They had a large, and largely male, cast to direct, led by Peter Layland as George, a migrant worker, and Colin Cook as Lennie, his constant, if not always appreciated, companion.
The story, for the uninitiated (which is nobody since the book is still required reading in high school English classes), finds George and Lennie en route to a ranch where “bindlestiffs,” aka those who travel with a bedroll, are employed on a regular basis. Camping under the stars, they talk about the property they hope to own together some day. No, they’re not a couple, but there is genuine affection between the two. Despite always reminding Lennie of what a drag he is, George really loves the clumsy, oversized oaf and has stuck with him to mitigate his own loneliness and reduced sense of worth.
But Lennie has a flaw. He is the proverbial bull in a china shop, and he likes to pet soft things such as mice, rabbits and puppies, sometimes to a fault. George warns him to keep out of trouble and to keep his hands to himself, but Lennie can’t lacks the self-control.
Of Mice and Men offers some rich opportunities for actors, and both men go for broke. Layland’s delivery is refreshingly natural and authentic throughout, with just enough hillbilly twang.
Cook’s characterization of the tragic, childlike Lennie, is moving, but the more agitated he becomes, the harder he was for me to keep my eye on him. He switches feet often during his later speeches, a distraction from where the focus should be, on his expressions, which can tell a lot about a character such as Lennie. It’s easy to go overboard portraying a mentally challenged character. Cook does not go that far, but he’s borderline in spots. However, he does break your heart.
Outstanding among the supporting cast members is John Cook (Colin’s uncle in real life) as the old, maimed ranch hand, Candy. Cook maintains his understated, believable demeanor despite evoking some unintended laughs with his adorable canine companion (a pug purported to be a herding dog). He plays Candy with just the right mix of passion and pathos.
The cane-carrying William Gifford rocks his white cowboy hat as The Boss. As his son, Jordan Gagnon brings a frenetic anger to his explosively jealous character, constantly keeping his eye on his bored-to-tears but saucy wife, played coquettishly by Megan Germond
The plucky Christian Webb does a good job as the meddlesome but candid ranch hand, Carlson, who tells Candy, “Your dog stinks!” and offers to euthanize it.
Jacob Weir seemed altogether too clean to me to be in a dusty bunkhouse, but he did a fine job as another ranch hand, Whit. Arthur Dashan offered a sympathetic portrayal of Slim, overseer of the bindlestiffs at the ranch.
In denim overalls, David Blakney, is great as the dark and handsome, but segregated, Crooks. He gives a riveting and credible performance as the muleskinner who will not consort with the likes of the bunkhouse boys, and particularly Curley’s alabaster wife, who admits to Lennie that she likes the feel of Crooks’ close-cropped ‘fro (although she doesn’t call it that).
Maybe because I know the story so well, I got a little impatient during the performance. It moved along a little slowly, due, possibly, to some dropped cues. In all fairness, when that happened, the actor who picked up the thread — and I saw this a few times — was able to convince me that the pregnant pauses were the result of intended delays in the speech of a hot, tired and overworked ranch hand.
Of Mice and Men owes its spare and effective set design to its director, Dallas Elwood, and to EPAC Artistic Director Patrick Foti. The show is lit by Lorraine Tennant and stage managed by Alex Bojan with costumes by Stacy Ernst, who kept them period specific.
IF YOU GO: Tickets are $20 ($18 for ages 65 and over and ages 12 and under, although some of the sexist and racist language and themes are not suitable for young kids). A special $5 rate for high school students is available. The box office can be reached at 785-8903 or online at www.endicottarts.com. Tickets also can be bought in person at the EPAC box office 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and one hour before show times.
Remaining peformances in EPAC’s Robert Eckert Theatre, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott, are at 8 p.m. today (Saturday, April 2) and at 3 p.m. Sunday (April 3).