The saddest thing about the “Of Mice and Men” staged by Palm Beach Dramaworks is that John Steinbeck’s themes of cruelty, isolation, powerlessness and abuse still sting hurtfully and still ring truthfully.
Helmed with a steady and sure hand by PBD’s resident director, J. Barry Lewis, this version is solidly acted and handsomely produced. The set of what appears to be weathered wood and panels of corrugated tin, lit as through a haze of dust, takes you right out of downtown West Palm Beach’s Clematis Street.
All the performances of the 10-member cast — ah, heck, make it 11, since a canine actor is very convincing as a dog — are so engrossing and riveting that a pseudo tunnel vision develops where we see only them. When the lights come up for the 15-minute intermission in the two-hour show, it is as if we have been ripped out of a dreamlike state, evoked in large part by atmospheric and almost lyrical sound design.
For people who haven’t read the American classic, the story is set in Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, Calif., at the height of the Great Depression in 1937. Two drifters, George and Lennie, dream of a better life. George (John Leonard Thompson), being the savvy one, takes care of his hulking friend Lennie (Brendan Titley), who doesn’t know his own strength. A vicious confrontation and a tragic accident while the two are doing itinerant manual labor as ranch hands threaten everything, including their delicate-but-sustaining friendship.
The title is taken from a line in the Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse,” which translates from Scots to English as “The best-laid schemes of mice and men/Often go awry.” Steinbeck said he conceived the novella as “a play to be read,” so the book has the scenes built right into it. Because of that, the work went from page to stage quickly, opening on Broadway in November 1937, the same year the novella was published.
“Of Mice and Men” runs through Nov. 10 at the Don and Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays with 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost $60 ($10 for students). Call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.