Theatre in the Park opened its 2011-12 season tonight with John Steinbeck’s dark drama about life in the Depression era of California’s northern farm district. Set just outside the small town of Soledad in 1937, Steinbeck characterizes the men who travel from ranch to ranch, seeking work and drifting up and down California searching for a “stake.” 

The play’s director pulls double duty, as Jesse R. Gephart directs and plays one of the play’s two protagonists, Lennie. Gephart assumes the role of a man who is strong as an ox but has the mind of a child. The combination gets Lennie into trouble, more times than not, because he does not understand either the situations into which he is thrust or what he is supposed to do in them; he depends entirely upon his friend George (Ryan Brock) to keep him out of trouble. George has assumed this role and has kept watch over Lennie for more years than either of them can count; the two have spent many of those years traveling up and down the farmlands of California, eking out an existence from the many farms they have worked. George has learned that Lennie’s bear-like strength is a trait that Lennie has a very hard time keeping in check; if left unattended, Lennie can and will fall into trouble despite the fact that it is not of his own making.

The two arrive at a ranch where they are slated to work — late, as George has decided it is better to go in the following morning than the current evening. George needs the peace of the open range before going into harness, “throwing barley.” It is backbreaking work and the type for which Lennie is well-suited; he is tremendously strong and does not get distracted by thinking too much. Nevertheless, because the two arrive late at the ranch they are already in Dutch with the Boss (Randy Jordan) who expected them to be there and ready to work beginning that dawn.

We meet the five men with whom the two are to work. There’s Candy (John Honeycutt), the man who lost his hand in an accident on the ranch five years ago and who is kept on as a janitor of sorts to the ranch bunkhouse and lands. Curley (Samuel Whistnant) is the son of the Boss and has a hair-trigger temper; George is sure one of them, he or Lennie, will have to tangle with the man soon, and it puts a grim future on their continued employment. Slim (Jeffrey Nugent) is the crew boss and handles the animals on the ranch; we learn that he must repair the hooves on one of the mules tonight with tar heated by Crooks (John Rogers Harris), the black man who serves as the ranch’s barn resident and blacksmith. Crowding into the small and cramped bunkhouse are Carlson (Matt Schedler) and Whit (Jordan Lee Westra), who make up the rest of the crew headed up by Slim. Stealing about the ranch and into the bunkhouse and barn is Curley’s new wife (Page Purgar), who is considered a “tart” by the men and who gives them “the eye” and makes them generally uncomfortable, especially because Curley is a jealous, as well as a hot-headed, man.

The set is a remarkably well-suited and easily-converted one, kept behind two huge barn doors and rolled out as needed to create the current scene. Designed and lit by Stephen J. Larson, the set is compact yet airy enough to create each scene, from the bunkhouse to the barn to the open prairie surrounding the ranch. Each piece is handled by the cast as crew, seen manhandling each large structure into place as if it were the bales of barley they “throw” every day. The barn doors serve double duty, keeping the set pieces out of sight and playing their own part as set pieces in act 2. The overall set, uniquely well-designed and highly efficient, adds greatly to the overall impression of the dry and dusty plain on which this play is set.

The play is designed so that most of the players play their roles as written, but it is important to keep our eyes on the three main characters, George, Lennie, and Candy. The three form an alliance of sorts as plans are made for the three to make a home for themselves on a small ten-acre tract George has had his eye on. But the cold brutal truth, that they will never realize this dream, is brought home as events on the ranch come to a head.

Of these three, Lennie is the lynchpin. His childlike mind is a detriment to their plans, as he is difficult to monitor constantly and it seems he can get into trouble at every turn. His desire to play with the puppies in the barn creates controversy, and his innocent “visit” to Crooks in act 2 brings several people into the room and builds tension as new trouble brews in the form of Mrs. Curley.

Gephart as Lennie is a marvel to watch, as his pre-pubescent mind tries to interpret all the actions swirling about him. Despite George’s very short leash, Lennie gets into trouble again and again as his simple deeds are misinterpreted. He is constantly afraid that George will be mad at him and deprive him of the rabbits he has been promised to keep on this land they will purchase. To Lennie, George is both confidant and father figure who keeps Lennie out of trouble and also keeps him on the straight and narrow around the other men who have no time or understanding for Lennie’s particular plight.

The entire ensemble cast works extremely well together and creates a world into which we are irrevocably drawn. The downward spiral that begins in act 1 flows smoothly and quickly into act 2 as circumstances conspire to keep Lennie and George in the box wherein they have so often found themselves. This is a grim and suspenseful play that we know will end badly but we are nevertheless drawn into the story by the superb work of this excellent cast.

Theatre in the Park has an ace of a play with which to begin the new season, a work that is a recreation of a classic novel that we all met in school. It is tight, swift, and deadly, as each new event leads irrevocably to the final scene. If the lights had not come up after the last blackout, there would have been not a sound out of the audience. The final scene is that well constructed. You owe it to yourself to get out and see this play.

Of Mice and Men runs through September 4 at the theater in Pullen Park. For details, see the sidebar.