‘Of Mice and Men’ stands tall amid grim setting

“Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck’s tragic 1937 tale about the illusory nature of the American Dream, is classic because its idea of the fragility of human existence remains a universal truth which repeats itself time and again. Las Vegas Academy Theatre gives the play an atmospheric presentation which is as good, if not better, than any professional company could provide.

In the hands of director John Morris, the fertile, Eden-like land of California comes refreshingly alive in aesthetic detail, and the story thrives. But the soil refuses to yield good fortune to its inhabitants, who spend somber days during the Great Depression in a struggle to survive.

George Milton and Lennie Small are constant companions, ranch hands who drift in search of work. A mismatched pair, George is slight yet brainy, and Lennie brawny but feeble of mind. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship, and they have each other’s backs. But the mental limitations of Lennie challenge George, who feels bitter and smothered by a sense of responsibility.

Since Lennie gets in trouble due to a penchant for touching soft things, the pair are often on the run. When they find work on a ranch, it seems they may be able to achieve their dream of buying a farm. But an unfortunate series of events involving troublesome characters derails their plans, and the story escalates to its inevitable, unhappy end.

These lonely characters have unfulfilled dreams, which they cling to for hope. The futility of dreams, isolation, and weariness are themes that run throughout the play. The production sticks with the racist, sexist and vulgar language of Steinbeck’s script; a reality of the times which really hasn’t changed.

The idea of nature being an integral part of these people’s lives shines in evocative, polished designs. The set, by Patrick Weaver, gives a grassy, sandy river bank edging the entire downstage; fly-in, richly painted flats represent the woodsy interiors of the bunk house and barn.

The uncredited lighting design reflects the passage of time, with the blue sky of day and the starry skies of night projected onto an upstage backdrop; yellow and orange sunlight bathe the set in warmth, and theatrical haze is employed to give a misty, dreamy quality.

The sound design, by Eric McFall, enhances with subtle nature sounds that draw us in; and the colorful costumes, by Katina McAmis, complete the earthy look.

Under the direction of Morris, the young and gifted cast are restrained and natural in delivery without caricature; tension, build, and pace are expertly modulated. Casey Andrews as George and Vinnie Prince as Lennie share a touching rapport.

Andrews gives an assured, quick-witted George, by turns stoic and then bitterly angry; and Prince imbues Lennie with a man-child innocence, tics and all, that subtly reveals an inner world of anxiety.

As Crooks, Adam McDonald finds humor, but also shows vulnerability while maintaining a painful hunched-back; Lucas Reilly as Candy gives touching resignation yet dignity to the weary old man; and Brady McDonald as Slim presents a wise, calming presence.

Rounding out the cast are a cocky Cody Angelo as Curley; a sassy Melissa Mihovich as Curley’s wife; the callous John Giangrande as Carlson; an energetic Parker Sachs as Whit; and an authoritative Tanner Polednak as The Boss.

In a heartfelt announcement before the show, Morris dedicated the performance to Anthony Del Valle, respected theater critic for the Review-Journal, who passed away in May. His are hard shoes to fill; he surely would’ve been touched by the gesture, and maybe by the production, too.

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