Critics might say, perhaps ironically, that John Steinbeck’s tragic “Of Mice and Men” never ceases to disappoint. For the director of Hudson Theater Works’ new adaptation of the classic American novella-turned-play, the disappointment is quite literal.
“It’s sad, the ending. I hope it happens differently, every time,” said Frank Licato after a preview of the show last Friday. “But when you’re in the presence of great art, you’re able to transcend the sadness, and that’s what being a human being is about.”
Licato’s melancholy, however, is directed strictly towards the plot. The show itself is a magnificent achievement, succeeding in bottling the sprawling reaches of the American dream and staging the desires and heartbreaks in an intimate and visceral environment.
Steinbeck’s ode to the everyman, which prefaced his magnum opus “The Grapes of Wrath,” tells the story of two traveling farm hands in Depression-era California – the mentally challenged gentle giant Lenny (played by Hudson Theatre Works co-founder Gregory Erbach) and his keeper, the grumpy but empathetic George (Randy Noojin of “Boardwalk Empire”).
Driven from job to job due to mishaps resulting from Lenny’s slow mind and brute strength, the pair dream of buying their own property, where George can find some peace and Lenny can tend the rabbits he so desperately wants.
“It’s a struggle for dignity, really, and I think its familiar in the sense that we all grew up with the American dream, but it's increasingly difficult to achieve because the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening,” said Licato.
Hudson Theatre Works, only in its second year, is truly a pioneer of the arts in North Hudson. It is funded in part by the Weehawken Township Council, and holds performances at the Park Performing Arts Center in Union City.
“It’s a struggle for dignity, really.” – Director Frank Licato
“These guys want to work, you know,” said Licato. “They have the right to a job and the right to a roof over their heads but it’s not always possible. That’s what Steinbeck is presenting so powerfully.”
Friendship onstage and backstage
One of the show’s particular strengths lies in the performances of Noojin and Erbach, who more than do justice to one of American theater’s classic friendships. The two actors are lifelong friends and have acted together before, which they said helped them solve some of the complexities in the relationship.
“Me and Randy have been friends for a long time, so we’ve got a built-in trust that’s already there, so we had a bit of a head start,” said Erbach. “It was fun.”
Noojin discussed how George, unlike the challenged Lenny, understood the deeper nuances of the pair’s relationship, which was something he wanted to convey onstage.
“I think George deals with a lot of guilt because in this situation, he wants to help somebody but at the same time, deep down, there’s this urge to get away from [Lenny],” he said. “So he’s dealing with the guilt of being caught between the lesser of two evils.”
Erbach, on the other hand, is faced with the challenge of existing within two different realities while playing Lenny.
“Lenny is different from almost every other character because he has his own world, so instead of working off of other characters, a lot of what I’m doing is in his own head,” he said. “So the moment to moment reality is there, but keeping focus on what’s in his head and in reality can be difficult.”
Licato said that he was thrilled with Noojin and Erbach’s performances.
“It was wonderful to watch them form an evolving relationship onstage,” he said. “They made my job easy.
No happy endings
The play is well-known for its heartbreaking ending. The actors had differing opinions on the ending, a distinction that perhaps lends itself to the message of the play as a whole.
“I don’t really see George as having a wonderful or free life afterwards, having to deal with the fact that circumstances forced him to kill his friend,” said Erbach. “But its love that drives George to kill Lenny, so maybe there’s something in that.”
Noojin took a more practical view.
“If you want to think about in flesh and blood terms, George probably finds another friend, he’s a nice guy, but there’s no doubt he’ll miss Lenny,” he said.
Licato, for his part, said he wasn’t sure if the show’s tragic finale is truly depressing, or strangely liberating.
“I think that’s what Steinbeck leaves up to us, he doesn’t tell us what to think,” he said.
“Of Mice and Men” will run Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. and 2 p.m. through April 21 at the Park Performing Arts Center, located at 560 32nd St., Union City. Tickets cost $25 each, with student and senior discounts available.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org