It's no secret that our nation is experiencing what many experts believe to be the worst recession since the Great Depression. Between the bailouts of 2008, the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the cold, hard facts about unemployment and home foreclosures, it's clear times are tough for a lot of Americans. Economically speaking, it's not unlike the 1930s, when John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, both of which chronicled the plight of the poor, vagrant and marginalized. The latter book was adapted for the stage by its author, and is currently on the boards at Boiler Room Theatre in a rare local mounting.
You'd have to be pretty insulated or callous not to feel the resonance in Steinbeck's tale, the story of a couple of Northern California drifters moving from ranch to ranch seeking employment and housing, buoyed by the impossible hope of saving enough money to buy a place of their own. The American Dream will elude George Milton and Lennie Small, bound together by random circumstances. George is clearly a competent and articulate fellow, but the large and dim-witted Lennie makes for an uneasy partner — George is more his caretaker than anything else. Plus Lennie's simpleton mind can't grasp the big picture about anything, and his childlike lack of awareness makes learning life lessons a huge challenge, and leads to trouble.
BRT's touching and vital production begins with archival Depression-era photos accompanied by a Woody Guthrie soundtrack (designed by Jamey Green and David Warfle). Add in Corbin Green's functional, well-weathered ranch set pieces, and we're sufficiently prepped for director Travis Brazil's tightly staged and consistently well-acted drama.
The play is an epic thematic piece, yet it unfolds episodically. Aside from a couple of key moments of violence, there's little in the way of onstage action. Nevertheless, Steinbeck's needy characters — all of them beaten down by the ravages of loneliness, poverty, broken families and lack of opportunity — evoke a wealth of emotional content.
George and Lennie's personal dynamic is established early on, and the thoughtfully rendered performances by Ross Bolen and John Mauldin never falter. As George, Bolen is tough, hardscrabble and realistic. Mauldin, meanwhile, effectively works his role's pathos after developing a moving characterization that thankfully avoids caricature.
The cast of 10 (11 if you include the dog Roxy) delivers wonderful supporting performances as well. Especially gratifying are the efforts of Phil Brady and Joel Diggs as two sensitive and compassionate ranch hands. Erica Lee Haines is also strong in the critical role of the desperate rancher's wife, who despite her apparent financial security is revealed to be as mentally scarred and restless as the transients. Haines finds a comfortable balance between temptress and lost little girl, and her earthy performance promises to deepen during the show's run.
Fairly early in Act 1, the dog is taken outside and shot. Advanced age seems to be her only real affliction, but she's put down nonetheless. That scene foreshadows events to come, while also signaling the play's brooding tenor and bitter message: that life may only be for the well-to-do, well-connected or just plain lucky.
This production's sharp, specific direction results in a moving piece of theater that hits painfully close to home in the current economic climate.
Blackbird Theater recently announced the two selections for its 2012-2013 theater season.
John Logan's Red (Oct. 18-Nov. 3) concerns the artistic and ethical struggles of painter Mark Rothko as he works to complete a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant. The play, which originally opened in London in 2009 starring Alfred Molina, had a relatively brief Broadway run and was awarded the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play. The Blackbird production is a Nashville premiere. Mike Fernandez, chair of the Lipscomb University Department of Theatre, will direct.
Blackbird's second show will be Peter Shaffer's masterwork Amadeus (March 7-23, 2013). Blackbird artistic director Wes Driver will stage the well-known script about the life, music, and death of Mozart, as seen through the eyes of the rival composer Salieri.
Both productions will be presented in collaboration with the Lipscomb University Department of Theatre and performed at Lipscomb's Shamblin Theatre.
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