Once it gets going, 'Mice and Men' at Hopkins is strong performance

February 18, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

It takes the kind of guts that separate the men from the boys, or, if you will, the men from the mice, to stage a production of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" only a few months after the release of the latest critically acclaimed movie version.

Yet Theatre Hopkins' current production does convey successfully the tension at the core of this drama about the extremes of human nature, ranging from friendship and loyalty to cruelty and revenge.

The stage play, adapted by Steinbeck from his own novel, is a little slow-going early on and some secondary performances are uneven. But once the major characters are established, director Suzanne Pratt's production gains momentum.

The opening image introduces us to Tom Blair's gentle giant, Lennie. A physical brute with the innocent mind of a child, he stumbles onto the set and flops on his belly, lapping water out of a stream as though he were a dog. From the start, there's something likable about Blair's Lennie, and his good-heartedness readily explains why his friend George puts up with him, despite the trouble he inadvertently but inevitably causes.

George and Lennie are itinerant farmhands in northern California in the 1930s. The rural accent Tony Colavito adopts as George sometimes feels forced, but his friendship with Lennie never does. Much of the plot centers on George's scheme to earn enough money to buy them a little farm of their own.

Whenever George tells Lennie about the farm -- which is often, because Lennie can't remember much -- the big man has a dreamy look in his eye. One of the production's slickest moments comes in the final scene, when Colavito's George gets the same look in his eye -- though now the dream has died.

This isn't to suggest that Theatre Hopkins' production is overly sentimental. To the contrary, unlike many previous versions, Pratt has restored some of the rawer racial passages concerning Crooks, the black stable hand on the ranch where Lennie and George hire on.

Derek Neal (who alternates in the role with Regi Davis) imbues Crooks with a keen intelligence that gives his bitterness added sting.

In the production's most taut scene, Crooks compares Lennie's situation with his own. But they're not the only outcasts on the ranch. There's also the teen-age bride of the boss' hot-headed jealous son, Curley. As Molly Moores portrays her, she's no lady, but she's not a woman of the world, either. This young actress makes us realize her character's downfall is due as much to inexperience as flirtatiousness.

When George describes the little farm to Lennie, he always begins by explaining that he and Lennie are different from other guys because they've got each other.

George and Lennie's friendship has a substance that outweighs the prejudice, small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness they encounter. Eventually, of course, their friendship proves stronger than even the strongest of men, Lennie.

It's an ending that could easily be maudlin. At Theatre Hopkins, it's uplifting -- sad, but uplifting.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Of Mice and Men"

Where: Theatre Hopkins, Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University.

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2:15 p.m. Sundays; 7:30 p.m. March 7; through March 14.

Tickets: $7.50-$10.

& Call: (410) 516-7159.

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