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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Of Mice and Men’

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It’s got to be a little intimidating to stage a John Steinbeck play right in the thick of where it’s supposed to take place. True, Fresno isn’t the Salinas Valley, but for purposes of a revival of “Of Mice and Men,” it’s close enough. Audiences here in the Central Valley know the terrain — and in many ways the culture of the Fresno area was steeped in the back story of the show’s Depression-era mindset.

That’s one reason why I like director Andrew Cardillo’s decision to opt for a highly stylized, minimalist approach to the show. If he’d tried for a realistic portrayal, it probably wouldn’t have lived up to expectations. His concept involves a raised, square wooden stage — lovingly crafted by set designer Kris Cadieux — and the action in the round. Intriguingly, the simple set pieces used in the show, mostly boxes and benches, all fit into the square stage itself and are removed when needed. This gives the production an organic, from-the-land sort of feel, at least symbolically, which ties nicely into the play’s setting and theme.

There are aspects of this CenterStage/Clovis Community Theatre show (which continues through Saturday at the Dan Pessano Theatre at the Clovis North arts complex) that I think work better technically than others, and some of the acting is uneven, but this “Mice and Men,” like its set, is a solid outing.

One of the challenges for any director of “Mice and Men” is simply the near-universality of the material. If you grew up in California, you probably read the novel in school about George and Lennie, the unlikely friends (one big, strong and slow, the other small and a lot brighter) who want nothing more than to break their cycle of poverty and buy their own land. And it’s fascinating how certain elements of the storyline have entered the popular culture — the obsession of Lennie with mice and rabbits, say, and his implied impaired mental capacity, and the relationship between him and George, along with such literary devices as the foreshadowing of death by the shooting of the old dog.

Matthew McGee, as George, gives a fine and nuanced performance. He captures the ambiguity of his friendship with Lennie, and we meet both the loyalist within him and the guy who gripes about Lenny holding him back. There’s affection in George, but it’s the kind of resigned, multifaceted feeling that people often feel for a difficult relation.

David P. Otero, as Lennie, offers a strong balance to McGee’s nicely shaded presence. This character is so well-known, in fact, that to play him is almost to wander into a cliche, but Otero — while giving a conventional interpretation — manages to connect in some fresh ways. Among the supporting cast, Patrick Allan Tromborg is a compelling “Slim,” and Matthew Freitas — with whom I was impressed in Fresno State’s “Time Again in Oz” as the Tic Toc Man — once again demonstrates a vitality and sharp stage presence in a small role as a fellow ranch hand.

From a directorial standpoint, the character of Curly’s Wife, played by Emily McLeod, is weakly handled. Perhaps this is because of my own preconceptions regarding the play and past performances I’ve seen, but McLeod seems too brassy and sophisticated in the role. She wants to be a ’30s movie star, yes, but that doesn’t mean she is one — and that sort of nuance just doesn’t come across.

There’s also a danger in this minimalist production of the whole thing being TOO minimal, too “cool,” in terms of the temperature of the stage, if you will. There are two major episodes of violence in the show, one in the first half and the other in the second, and both times I didn’t feel the heat of those moments — they just sort of happened and then we moved on.

The costumes, designed by Laura Pando, are of a muted palette, which might make sense in a realistic production, but the problem is that against such a bare, stylized set they don’t stand out. My biggest concern with the production overall, however, is with Ben Holley’s lighting design. On opening night, it was inadequate. The first scene, meant to be outdoors as the sun sets, felt harsh and artificially illuminated, and as the play progressed, that harshness — particularly against all that burnished wood — was awkward. Rather than warm this show up, the lighting made it feel colder.

Still, there are moments that truly resonate in this version of “Of Mice and Men,” from the brackish contents in the first scene’s water hole (wow!) to the themes of loneliness and desperation that seem to thread through the play like spiderwebs. Handsome and well-staged, this production is a nice tribute to Steinbeck’s legacy in a place not so far where it all happened.