By ERIC MARCHESE / CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Aug. 1, 2016 Updated Aug. 2, 2016 11:54 a.m.
A clear-eyed view of the Great Depression era's survival-of-the-fittest mindset, "Of Mice and Men" has been adapted for the stage at least seven times. The earliest of these was in 1937, the same year John Steinbeck's novella was published.
Steinbeck himself created that first stage version, now being produced by and at Costa Mesa Playhouse in staging that's sometimes bittersweet, sometimes gripping.
Steinbeck deliberately structured the book like a play, and his adaptation earned the 1938 New York Drama Critics' Circle award for Best Play.
Michael Serna's staging is well directed and mostly well cast. His modular scenic design and period costumes of '30s ranch hands, and Ryan Linhardt's evocative lighting, aid immeasurably.
Like the book, the play starts on a Thursday night, as George Milton (Angel Correa) and Lennie Small (Peter Hilton) bunk down for the night along the Salinas River. It ends in the same spot three nights later, as George faces a searing moment of truth about his longtime friend and charge.
In between, we follow the duo to new jobs at a corporate-owned ranch that provides their first real chance to realize their lifelong dream to own their own land – but also, ironically, jeopardizes and cruelly dashes that plan, hence the work's title.
Drawn from a Robert Burns poem, it quotes part of the two-line stanza that is often rendered as, "The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry."
In Correa and Hilton, Serna has a fine focal duo. It matters little that they're about the same physical size, whereas Steinbeck describes Lennie as a hulk and George as small. Their bittersweet pairing personifies the Darwinian nature of the times.
A playful physicality informs the way Correa's George relates to Lennie, as do harsh undercurrents to George's outwardly gentle, nurturing approach to his friend, and the emotion in the actor's voice goes a long way in expressing George's feelings.
Voice-wise, Hilton seems to be channeling John Malkovich, who played Lennie in the noted film version from 1992. His mimicry isn't just a tribute to that star; it effectively gives us a window into Lennie's simplistic view of the world.
Hilton skillfully paints Lennie as a sweet but dumb child in a powerful body, ignorant of his own strength. His ignorance extends to the ways of the world, and Hilton's work is moving and his helpless character endearing.
Serna's staging delivers many a jolt, as when Carlson insists on shooting Candy's aging, infirm dog, ostensible euthanasia shocking for its cruelty. As sobering is Lennie's crushing of Curley's right hand following the tense, mounting conflict between Curley and the other workers.
Wholly credible in depicting the hard times suffered by Steinbeck's characters are Michael Dale Brown's elderly, maimed Candy; Mark Tillman's laconic, ethical Slim; Stefan C. Marchand's callous Carlson; and Chris Mertan's friendly, talkative Whit. Kelsey Olson aptly paints not just the desire for fame of Curley's Wife but also her vanity – and her deep sadness, bred of being shunned.
Some aspects hamper CMP's production. It's awfully hard to buy Mauricio Zamora as a petulant, spoiled son of privilege, and where the role requires a selfish, pigheaded, genuinely mean persona, his Curley is merely irritating.
Van Hudson Jr.'s black stable-hand Crooks is implausibly outspoken and outgoing, muting the role's essential bitterness, cynicism and cruelty.
The story's tragic climax desperately needs a real gunshot, either just before or just after the final blackout, leaving the audience no doubt as to Lennie's fate and acting as a logical bookend to Candy's dog being put down. Bits of musical underscoring would likewise also bolster this generally solid handling of the Steinbeck classic.
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: Through Aug. 21. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
How much: $20 ($18 seniors/students)
Length: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Suitability: Adults and teens (for language and content)