Touching treatment of Steinbeck classic in Westfield

By Wendy Carson

There was a comedian who once said he doesn’t like “Star Wars” because growing up he saw the movie “Spaceballs” first and was disappointed by the lack of comedy. Growing up with numerous Looney Tunes cartoon shorts parodying various high-minded subjects, I feel the same way about “Of Mice and Men.” I liked the comedic versions I grew up watching. However, I have learned that with local theater offerings, a great production can change your opinion of a show — and that is the case here.

Main Street Productions in Westfield has on stage a remarkable version of the John Steinbeck novel. George Milton (Brian Coon) and Lennie Small (Joe Wagner) are two drifters in search of a small stake they can use to purchase a small house and farm in order to “live off the fat of the land.” This brings them to the barley farm that proves to be their salvation and undoing.

Once they arrive in the farm bunkhouse, they meet our somewhat usual assortment of characters: the gruff, no-nonsense Boss (A. Mikel Allan) and his hot-headed son Curley (Jake Hobbs), who recently married and seems to always be searching for his flirty wife (Audrey Duprey). For the actual working members of the crew, we have Slim (Robert Webster Jr.), the mule driver and de facto supervisor; Candy (Chris Otterman) a crippled, aging farmhand with a dog (Meeko) about as broken as he is; Crooks (Austin Hookfin), the black stable-hand who gets his name from his injured back (NOTE: As the script was written in 1937 and takes place during the Great Depression, certain racist terms are used, in context); as well as the other farm hands Carlson (Logan Browning) and Whit (Nathaniel Taff).

Coon does a great job of balancing George’s ambitious dream of the future with his concerns for Lennie’s actions erasing all hope of it. While Wagner seemed to take a little bit to fully get into character, once he settled in, his Lennie emulates all of the sweet naivete and simplicity of purpose that the character struggles with in his desire to just hold and enjoy the feel of something soft in his hands.

Otterman’s performance is perhaps my favorite. He manages to keep Candy upbeat while embracing the character’s desolate vision of his pathetically painful demise on the farm. He takes on the hopefulness of joining George and Lennie on their farm, trusting them to “take him out back and shoot him” when he is no longer viable. He even manages to upstage Meeko, whose debut turn as Candy’s Dog makes him a rising star to watch for in future roles.

Chris Otterman aptly brings out Curley’s obsessively neurotic desires to keep his wife happy, yet under control, at any cost. As Curley’s wife, Duprey delicately treads the line between the lonely woman who just wants companionship and the “tart” out to make trouble among the menfolk for her own pleasure. Webster does an admirable job of subtly showing Slim as a man just wanting to keep peace throughout the workforce without encouraging any of them to fall for the “honey trap.”

Hookfin gives us a window to the struggles people in his skin had in that era, even in the otherwise egalitarian world of the farm worker or ranch hand.

James H. Williams directs, and Ian Marshall-Fisher provides an excellent bunkhouse/barn design for the stage. Coon also created the lighting design.

While the show is a heady mixture of the stark realities of life, it does manage to portray the human struggle for hope and happiness throughout. Whether you liked the novel or not, you should certainly give the play a viewing. It will help open dialogues regarding its message and why it remains a classic of literature that should continue to be taught in our schools.

One weekend of “Of Mice and Men” remains, though Sunday, Feb. 20, at the relatively new Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St., Westfield. Info and tickets at www.westfieldplayhouse.org.

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