John Steinbeck’s novels about social injustice earned him a Nobel Prize…and a slew of Hollywood films based on his stories. Lon Chaney, Jr. is said to have given the performance of a lifetime as Lennie in the 1939 version of OF MICE AND MEN. This past weekend I witnessed another tour de force as Lennie, that of Harry McEnerny as the developmentally disabled migrant, in the MOONBOX production at the Boston Center for the Arts.
OF MICE AND MEN (playing through Dec. 23rd) may not be your idea of holiday fare but the performances make it a must see. And your ticket will be benefitting a worthy cause. MOONBOX has partnered with the community support organization, MORE THAN WORDS, which operates bookstores (on line, in the South End and on Moody Street, Waltham) to raise funds for their work with foster teens in “Education, Employment and Self-Advocacy.”
What’s truly remarkable about director Olivia Choat’s production is that every character counts. No one fades into the background. This stellar ensemble makes Steinbeck’s Depression era novel work both as morality tale and as compelling storytelling.
All George (the solid Phil Taylor) and Lennie (the miraculous McEnerny) want is to save up a “stake” so they can buy a farm where Lennie can raise rabbits and live out his days without “trouble.” Poor Lennie, he seems to get into trouble wherever they go, despite George’s best efforts to keep a watchful eye on him. Folks don’t understand his slow demeanor. They think he’s not capable of work or they’re frightened by his clumsy movements and sometimes he doesn’t know his own strength.
Steinbeck writes a Black farmhand into the story who faces discrimination not terribly unlike what Lennie encounters. It’s a transcendent scene between the two men when Lennie wanders into Crooks’ segregated corner of the barn and tells him how lucky he is to be by himself and not in the bunk house. Calvin Braxton gives a luminous performance as the lonely outsider who finds company, acceptance and a measure of hope with Lennie.
Steinbeck loves parallels. Another is illuminated by Ed Peed who gives a heartbreaking performance as the old wrangler with nowhere to go now that he can’t work and no one who cares about him except his failing old sheepdog. Steinbeck manages to predate civil rights, disability rights and even animal rights in OF MICE AND MEN and director Choat and company don’t miss any of these complexities along the way.
Jordan Sobel makes the character of Carl far more human (and humane) than most productions do. Everyone, from Erica Spyres’ sad, sympathic dreamer of a flirt to Tom Shoemaker’s stand up farmhand to Glen Moore’s villain to Phil Thomson’s no nonsense boss to Steven Emanuelson’s affable drifter, contribute mightily to the fabric of the story.