'Masquers' 'of mice and men' roars with power
By MARILYN JOZWIK
Published Aug. 14, 2018
John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” is the sort of show that you don’t see often put on by community theater groups.
Steinbeck’s classic tale of two migrant workers -- one mentally challenged, the other his protector – in 1937 California is a powerful piece with two of the stage’s most memorable characters, both staying afloat with their dreams for a better life.
With an emphasis on musicals, comedies and murder-mysteries by community groups, plays such as Steinbeck’s powerful piece are often overlooked.
A tip of the cap to Musical Masquers for presenting Steinbeck’s work and to Paul Steinbach, who both directed and starred as George in the show, no easy feat. The show is being presented at the University of Wisconsin-Washington County in West Bend, in its cozy, comfortable theater.
There wasn’t a lot going for many Americans in 1937 when Steinbeck wrote the play, which reflects his own experiences working with migrants as a youngster. The country was in the throes of the Great Depression. George and Lennie (Nicholas Callan Haubner) have left their farm jobs in Oklahoma due to the devastation of land by drought and wind erosion – which became known as the Dust Bowl -- and sought greener pastures in California.
George feels obligated to care for Lennie, a hulk of a man with the mind of child, after Lennie’s caretaker, his aunt, dies. Lennie loves to touch things, especially soft furry animals. On their last job he touched a woman’s dress, then wouldn’t let go. He was falsely accused of rape, and the two fled to find other work.
George constantly bemoans the trials and tribulations of his role, saying to Lennie, “I could get along so easy if I didn’t have you on my tail” and “Whatever we ain’t got, you want!”
Yet George knows that lots of men have no one in their lives, no one who cares at all about them. "Guys like us got no families,” George says. “They ain't got nobody in the world that gives a hoot in hell about 'em!" Lennie loves to hear this story, especially when George gets to the part about them caring about each other.
Lennie also loves to hear George tell the story about how they ‘re going to buy a little farm where Lennie could raise rabbits, which delights Lennie to no end.
At their new job, they encounter a mean boss (Scott Pollnow) and his surly son, Curley (Jake Cox), whose new wife (Susan Martin) loves to flirt with the workers, which angers Curley. Sharing the bunk house with George and Lennie are Candy (Melf Gourlie), Slim (Peter Gibeau), Carlson (Tom Stodola) and Whit (Simon McGhee). A black worker, Crooks (Marvin Bynum), has his own bunk room – next to a manure pile.
The pair attract attention in the bunkhouse. “It jus' seems kinda funny a cuckoo like him and a smart little guy like you travelin' together,” says Slim.
George and Lennie’s hopes of buying their own place are buoyed when old Candy, who has only one good arm, tells them he has about half the money they need to buy the place and asks to be part of the plan. They figure, with another month’s pay, the place could be theirs.
But Lennie needs to stay out of trouble. George constantly reminds him of this, but knows it is just a matter of time before trouble once again finds them.
Haubner and Steinbach are a marvelous Lennie-George pairing. As Lennie, Haubner, a big man, physically fills the bill for Lennie. His childlike voice and mannerisms, plus a bewildered look, all add to his character’s believability, as does his gentle rocking when he’s sitting, much like someone with Asperger’s might do. There is such a sincerity and sweetness about Haubner’s Lennie – and his relationship with George -- that makes the ending so hard to bear.
Steinbach as George steers the show. His character is a solid guy, a good guy – sentimental even – all traits that Steinbach captures well.
The pair’s bunkhouse mates also handle their roles well, and all have appropriate looks for farmhands thanks to Steinbach and Sue Gilbertson who handled set and costume detailing.
I especially enjoyed the performance of Bynum as Crooks, the black farmhand who steers clear of the other men. In Act II, Lennie comes to Crooks bunk room after the other fellas go to town for some evening fun. Bynum’s Crooks is sullen and angry, suspicious of Lennie, who is color blind. It is a fine scene, well-performed by both.
Martin as Curley’s wife is the only female in the show. She flounces into each all-male gathering, starving for attention. All the fellows know she’s trouble, yet she persists. In one of the final scenes of the show, with Haubner’s Lennie, Martin pours out her character’s life’s story and dreams while Lennie does the same, each oblivious to the other’s longings. The scene turns tragic in perhaps the most dramatic moment of the show, well-executed by both performers.
The scenes following are gripping, but the pacing made them drag a bit. Movement seemed to slow considerably in the final scenes.
This was my first time to UW-Washington County’s theater and I was most impressed. It feels spacious, yet cozy, like older theaters. Also, all the components needed for a first-rate production were in place – crystal clear sound that captured all of Steinbeck’s language, and lighting that reflected time of day and moods—thanks to Kurt Krueger, who was responsible for both. Steinbach’s set, especially the bunkhouse, looks permanent down to the oft-swinging screen door that prompted a memory of my grandmother’s lake cottage and her admonition: “Don’t slap the door!” I never knew why she said “slap” instead of “slam.”
If you go
Who: Musical Masquers
What: “Of Mice and Men”
When: Through Aug. 19
Where: University of Wisconsin-Washington County, 400 University Drive, West Bend