Spencer Cantrell and Gregory Crafts give riveting performances as migrant farm workers George and Lenny in Theatre Unleashed’s intimate revival of John Steinbeck’s classic tale of human loneliness and impossible dreams, the 20th-century classic Of Mice And Men.

Our first glimpse of lumbering hulk Lenny and his lifelong friend and protector George makes it clear from the get-go that there’s something not quite right with the big one in addition to his obvious simple-mindedness.

Lenny, we soon discover, has an unfortunate habit of killing small living things, not maliciously to be sure, but put a mouse or puppy in his hands and chances are the poor creature will end up with its neck broken, the victim of a fit of infantile temper.

Not that this is the only manifestation of Lenny’s childlike nature. The not-always-gentle giant can’t get enough of hearing how his and George’s lives will change once they’ve saved up enough money to buy a couple of acres of land with a garden and chickens and plenty of soft, cuddly rabbits for Lenny to pet (that is for as long as they’re lucky enough to stay alive).

Hired as farmhands by a man known only as The Boss, George and Lenny soon become aware that not all is right in the mostly male world around them.

Curley (Lee Pollero), their employer’s short-fused, ill-tempered son, has married a “tart” (Amanda Rae Troisi) whose frequent visits to the bunkhouse, allegedly in search of her husband, have fueled his jealous nature.

Lenny’s declaration that he finds Curley’s wife “purty” sounds a warning alarm in George, the two men having been forced to beat a quick retreat from the town they had previously called home when Lenny found himself unfairly accused of sexual assault.

Now, with George’s well-meaning but physically menacing companion in almost constant proximity to his boss’s curvaceous wife, history seems likely to repeat itself as Of Mice And Men hurtles relentlessly forward with the inexorability of a Greek tragedy.

Even today, eighty years after its Broadway debut, Steinbeck’s stage adaptation of his life-experience-inspired novella stands out for its gritty realism, its richly developed characters, and its daring darkness at a time when Hollywood was still treating Great Depression audiences to sunshine (The Awful Truth) and soap (Stella Dallas).

Director Aaron Lyons keeps emotions high and performances powerful at Theatre Unleashed and never more so than when his two electrifying stars share the stage.

There’s not an “actorish” note to Cantrell’s superb George, a man so aware of the emptiness that awaits him should he choose to go it alone that he plays with fire on a daily basis with the loose cannon that is Lenny, a role that an equally splendid Crafts invests with such genuine purity and goodness of spirit that George’s decision to stick by him makes perfect if perhaps misguided sense.

A terrific Troisi reveals that despite Curley’s wife’s sultry, seductive ways, she is as much a victim of loneliness as the men around her, and a dynamic Twon Pope’s justifiably angry/frightened Crooks stands out as a three-dimensional black man written at a time when Hollywood barely gave African-American characters two.

Pollero’s rage-and-jealousy-fueled Curley, David Caprita’s brogue-sporting, dog-loving Candy, and Jim Martyka’s soft-spoken mensch of a Slim do fine work too as do Matthew Clay and Ross Shaw as Carlson and Whit, with understudy Jovial Kemp filling in as The Boss.

Last but definitely not least, Of Mice And Men benefits enormously from composer Shane Howard’s live guitar-strummed mood music throughout.

Scenic designer Ann Hurd deserves kudos for creating Of Mice And Men’s four distinct locales on a limited budget as does Michelle Stann for her effective lighting and Lyons for some realistic sound effects. Costume designer Jessica J’aime gives the men appropriate if not always significantly weathered farmwear, but falls short in Curley’s wife’s anachronistic ‘60s minidress, and the production could benefit from more believable fight choreography. Beth Scorzato is stage manager.

Of Mice And Men more than merits the cheers that greeted its actors at curtain calls. It is easily the best of the more than half-dozen Theatre Unleashed productions I’ve seen.

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The Belfry Stage, Upstairs at the Crown, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. www.theatreunleashed.org

–Steven Stanley
May 4, 2017
Photos: Lonni Silverman



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