We are further told of dry leaves, a setting sun, a sparrow singing, the distant sound of ranch dogs barking aimlessly and one clear quail call. The quail call turns into a warning call, and there is a beat of the flock's wings. Then, the two main characters enter.
This is the sort of detailed, finely observed naturalism one might expect from a popular novelist, who knows the scene he is describing first hand. We are prepared to view what happens next as a literal mirroring of nature.
For the recent production at UNO, set designer Kevin Griffith scattered some dry brush to suggest the river bank. But the stage, built of timber planks, was dominated by the rough, wooden silhouette of a stylized ranch building, seen against an abstract twilight. Into this evocation of farm country strolled a young man (Asher Griffith), a sort of Woody Guthrie folk troubadour, with a guitar and harmonica. He sang a few chorus of "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" -- and strolled off, after the two main characters had entered, almost as though his music had called them into existence.
With the troubadour, director David Hoover freed the text from the burden of naturalism. He prepared us to experience "a ballad," and that subtle shift, by emphasizing the play's archetypal and poetic elements, enriched our pleasure enormously. For, Of Mice and Men could easily be subtitled, The Ballad of Lennie and George.
Lennie and George form one of those iconic male pairs -- like Don Giovanni and Leporello or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza -- where there is absolute domination and, yet, paradoxically, a deep mutual dependence. Lennie is a moron; goodhearted, well-meaning and almost superhumanly strong. George is a regular working stiff, but not quite regular. He loves Lennie and takes responsibility for him, very much like an animal lover with a pet (a metaphor that Steinbeck insists upon, when an old, blind dog is shot to put it out of its misery).
The pair arrive at a ranch, looking for work. We soon learn that Lennie got them in serious trouble on their last job. He had wanted to feel the fabric of a woman's dress. She had panicked and screamed. They had nearly been lynched as rapists. Against the dark foreboding of this recent hair's breadth escape, George holds out a bright, simple dream: They will amass enough money to buy a small piece of land and a house. They will be their own bosses.
Unfortunately, the ranch manager's son is a mean-spirited bully and, to make matters worse, he has a dissatisfied, attractive young wife with a penchant for cruising the bunkhouse in search of male companionship.
Speaking of male companionship: John Steinbeck adopted his novel for the stage in 1937 and it's interesting to see the take on intimacy among men. Curley, the villain of the piece, does make a slighting comment, touching on homosexual possibilities.
Curley: Let the big guy talk ... why are you shoving into this for?
George: Him and me travel together.
Curley: Oh, so it's that way.
George (tense and motionless): What way?
One can't help but feel we would have heard a great deal more on the subject, for better or worse, if the play had been written three decades later.
Scott Theriot as George and Gary Mendoza as Lennie created a believable and fascinating odd couple of low-lifes. George had enough "ordinariness" to make his sensitive side touchingly real, while Lennie's brutishness never became a mannerism. We understood both the poor guy's innocence and the tragic impossibility of his survival in a world he could not possibly comprehend.
Michael Santos turned in a strong supporting performance as Slim, a decent, laconic mule skinner, confident of his manly prestige. Raphield Howard gave us a sympathetic, but by no means, goody-goody Crooks -- the black stablehand who resents his exclusion from the bunkhouse. The scene where Lennie goes to visit Crooks in his room is one of most compelling in the play. In this unexpected encounter between two outsiders, Crooks treats the "loonie" with cruelty, followed by regret, just as George, himself, did at first.
Lovely Ashley Ricord showed us a lonely, deluded tart of a young wife, while Jim Winter's Curley certainly had a full head of steam -- although the performance would have benefited from a more inner menace, of the cold and steely kind. Stocker Fontelieu, Shane Stewart, Tony Terrebonne and John Hammons ably filled out the cast.