Puppies, homicide and the Great Depression were a combination powerful enough to fill the Birdcage Theatre’s seats Saturday night. Even the spare lawn chairs by the men’s room were recruited to seat the overflow crowd for “Of Mice and Men” in Oroville
For those not familiar with John Steinbeck’s novel (he also co-authored the play), this is the tale of two cousins trying to find work during the Depression. Lennie (Terry Bartlett) is bigger and slower, while George (Jared Wilmarth) watches over Lennie as they try to find work and outrun past misunderstandings.
The Birdcage Theatre doesn’t have the glitz or the thrust stage for the audience to wrap around like the Blue Room Theatre. It uses a letterbox stage, which keeps the action contained with a fourth wall cut out for the audience to see the action.
Bartlett’s performance was perfect. He caught the persona of Lennie and the deep thought it would take to turn the five of spades upside-down and see it would look the same. In Bartlett’s eyes, you could see Lennie’s little mouse running in the wheel each time he heard about the rabbits or as he tried to not talk to the boss’ son, Curley (Marco Antionio Gonzalez), or his wife (Julie Steffen).
Herman Tuider was a nice surprise as Candy, the one-handed old man kept around only because he was hurt on the job. I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing “On Golden Pond” last season, but I regret it after hearing him deliver his lines in one long, strained breath. He nailed the old crotchety image well enough with his long, motionless stare while waiting for his dog to be shot.
Speaking of dogs, giggles and “aww”s erupted from the crowd when Lennie–who in the play takes a dog from the mule driver Slim–pulled a real puppy out of his jacket.
Of course George was there to take the puppy back to the barn to be with its mother. His actions weren’t to be cruel, but to help Lennie as best he could. Wilmarth’s protective and caring performance was most evident whenever Curley tried to pick a fight with Lennie. Curley would always have George between him and Lennie when he couldn’t find his wife.
This took some guts because Gonzalez played a very short-fused Curley that was all talk and very little action. At times his performance and the music had something in common; either the volume, bass or both needed to be taken down a notch or three. The comedic effect of Curley’s short fuse and attempted intimidation would have been more effective with less energy.
His wife also needed a bit more work. Steffen’s performance was about as empty and shallow as the character she played. It seemed like she was trying too hard and needed to take a step or two back in the script and real life. She seemed much more convincing after Lennie broke her neck.
The biggest shock of the show was the final act. The inevitable execution was at hand and the people averted their tearing eyes.
As George drew the gun to Lennie’s head, his hand shook and Lennie was focused on the river in front of him, totally unaware of the steel death about to fly through his brain. Finally the curtains closed with no sight or sound of a shot taken, just the way director Priscilla Gonzalez intended.