John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men is a classic of American literature. The same year, Steinbeck adapted his sad tale of ill-fated migrant farm workers as a play that ran on Broadway for more than 200 performances. It’s a fine choice for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, a company that goes beyond the works of Shakespeare to present great works of British and American literature. Featuring two of the company’s most versatile actors, Jeremy Dubin and Jim Hopkins, it’s an evening of sharply defined characters and heart-rending events.
Hopkins is the childish Lennie, a developmentally disabled man oblivious to his brute strength, often clumsily damaging or destroying the living things he loves. Dubin is George, Lennie’s irascible friend, protector and caretaker.
They wander from job to menial job on California farms, unrealistically dreaming of buying a place of their own, even as Lennie’s behavior repeatedly derails their optimistic plans. Hopkins invests Lennie with a sweet soul, funny in great bursts of innocence but also prone to uncontrolled anger. Dubin, half Hopkins’ size, plays George as a caring but frustrated parent, loving and angry, helpless to keep this oversized child out of trouble. (In CSC’s recent Oliver Twist, Dubin played Fagin, the miserly organizer of a gang of youthful pickpockets, and Hopkins was the violent criminal Bill Sikes.)
Fine acting permeates this cast of 10, staged with sensitivity and detail by Drew Fracher. Joneal Joplin (Scrooge at the Playhouse for many years) is the elderly Candy, swept up in George and Lennie’s dreams of escaping harsh farm life. Justin McCombs portrays a fair-minded mule and horse handler; Charlie Cromer is the ill-tempered, hotheaded son of the farm owner, and Maggie Lou Rader is his dissatisfied, provocative wife. Randy Lee Bailey plays a prejudiced, cruel farmhand with little respect for life, and Ken Early is an African-American worker, painfully ostracized by the others.
In fact, most of the characters in Of Mice and Men are victims of bigotry and persecution, and life is treated callously. Lennie’s tragic and inevitable end is foreshadowed repeatedly by cruel events earlier in the play. His and George’s friendship, built on familiarity and kindness, is sadly trampled by an uncaring world, quick to judge and destroy. This is a deeply moving production.
OF MICE AND MEN, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Nov. 11.