‘Of Mice and Men’ at Winneshiek.

Winneshiek Players opens classic drama “Of Mice and Men” Friday evening in its 92nd season. The community theatre, unless challenged, still holds the longest and most continuous all volunteer theatre in the country. Kudos to that and nearing the century mark!
The play in two acts is an American classic by esteemed author John Steinbeck, winner of Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, and author of some twenty-seven books. Included in his long list of creations are most recognizable, “Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden.” So prolific his literary imaginings, first by pen, later by typewriter, it seems the restless man was unable to rest. Some critics labelled his subject themes a blend of real and imaginary, a rather oxymoronic point of view. His reality was grounded with life struggles of the ordinary with the added intrigue of the extraordinary.
This idea began as a novella, then morphed into play in 1937. Hardly shy from controversy, Steinbeck mined the realities of racism, loneliness, and prejudice of the mentally ill of the era. The depth of it has reached across generations, sometimes required reading in schools.
The production would not be the first for the community theatre, and maybe not the last. When a piece so inspires, so profoundly tests the boundaries our imagination, it’s difficult to not to revisit the power of a sometimes-human condition. Furthermore, the intensely flawed character in this story may be relatable to more than a few, a disquieting feeling to grasp.
At the helm of this classic is director Tom Myers, a theatre veteran from long ago. His seasoned knowledge onstage, offstage, in the wings, and over a script cannot not be matched. His extensive background in the education field includes Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Highland Community College. Now retired, he focuses on directing whatever play catches his fancy. Recent WP shows of his include “Death Trap,” “I Never Sang for my Father,” and Rabbit Hole.”
At first glance when the curtain opens to the entire set, a breathtaking design unfolds as if it were a character on its own. The rustic, testosterone-infested, rough hewn bunker has everything necessary to host the framework of the action from edgy language to bloody fights. Comments about the set design usually appear later in a review along with the lesser, but no less important, laundry list of other contributions. For this production, however, Myers claims about set guy Jeff Stultz that he, “wouldn’t do a production without him.”
There are also musical embellishments that describe eerie, ominous or just plain hinky chills. Myers credits his own work with that and notes that he is a fan and collector of movie compositions. Timed exactly right, they work. And they did.
The story involves two drifters looking to prosper in a better life, always somewhere else, chasing a future dream. George by Douglas Munda portrays the supposed common sense of the duo, though complicated by the fact that his outlook is often flawed and sometimes greedy. Munda revives this character from his experience seventeen years ago. About his growth of the character since then, he relates his real-life role as a father and enduring pursuit of a child’s safety, sometimes unsuccessfully, but always an ongoing effort. That kind of caretaking he has since transferred to character Lennie.
Most flawed, in fact, is co-drifter Lennie, a bumbling giant of a man-child who fails to realize his massive muscle strength over his lesser ability to think. His wobbly stance matches his wobbly personality. He is emotionally needy about constant reassurance, but underneath has a deadly agenda about vulnerable living things. Small living things. His extent of his problems is maybe, maybe not, noticed by George.
Justin Pasch takes the Lennie role to task, unmatched and thoroughly the ultimate of the long stretch from regular behavior to irregular behavior. Everything about his body language, speech difficulty, and whatever else it takes from the pages of script to character is transformed into another realm of reality. His portrayal gives new meaning to suspension of disbelief. Outstanding. Outstanding.
Craig Downing as Curley (also assistant director to the show) plays a most-disliked character, making enemies at every turn. His wife, who is only referred to as “wife,” stirs his mean bones with jealous rages about her loose ways. As the only female in the cast, she is a visual contrast to the rest of the males, but femininity ends there. Cecelie Eiler portrays herself vividly bringing extra talents to the role including a blood-curdling scream when she meets her untimely demise. Douglas Rappa, by contrast plays Candy, fitting to his rather understated personality. Paul VanderVennet as Boss, Jamie Ertmer as Whit, and Graham Gustoff thicken the action wherever it takes place.
A special note to Elliott Cooper who plays Crooks and steals the scene in his private quarters. In what turns out to be his first time to set foot on stage, he delivers a natural affinity for timing, presence, vocal strength and sweeping gestures galore. He needs to grace Winneshiek with more roles yet to come.
Adam Moderow as Carlson is comfortable no matter what he does on stage, off stage, building sets, learning lines and whatever else needs to be taken care of. His WP offering defines exactly how community theatre should operate. The show must go on and he’ll be there to make sure. He will also contribute to the next generation of theatre types by having his first child soon.
Interesting to note about how Steinbeck peoples his stories. Every one of the souls that dwell, enter and exit, is a complicated, layered in complexities worth a long study.
‘Of Mice and Men,’ a dramatic must-see runs March 30, 31 and April 6 at 7:30 p.m., April 7 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The theatre is located at 228 W. Clark St. Choose tickets@wplay.org or contact (815) 232-7023 for more information including group rates, accessibility, and all that make your visit to the theatre a positive experience, including a volunteer stint. Tickets sell fast!