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Review: Of Mice and Men

What: Of Mice and MenWhere: McPherson PlayhouseWhen: To July 15Rating: Four Stars (out of five)It appears the American Dream has mutated somewhat since the 1930s.

What: Of Mice and MenWhere: McPherson PlayhouseWhen: To July 15Rating: Four Stars (out of five)It appears the American Dream has mutated somewhat since the 1930s. Rather than flat-screen TVs or gleaming pickup trucks, all George and Lennie yearned for was a nice little farm with a few rabbits and chickens.Their dream is small and good. Yet in Of Mice and Men, just when hope glimmers, it’s snatched from their calloused hands. The end result: tragedy.Soon after the book’s publication, John Steinbeck — whose compassionate, poetic writings on the working man are unrivalled — adapted the 1937 novella for stage. Victoria’s Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre has successfully revived the drama, offering a thoughtfully directed show brimming with heart and pathos.George and Lennie are Depression-era bindlestiffs, itinerant workers travelling to find an honest day’s work. George, carrying a chip on his shoulder, is resourceful and shrewd. Lennie is a damaged gentle giant. His fatal flaw is super strength. The living things he loves to touch — mice, puppies — are invariably crushed by his clumsy affection.From the beginning, we sense the pair’s stint working a farm is doomed. George’s instructions to Lennie — shut up, don’t let it happen again — are too anxious, too strange. While good, ordinary men toil at the farm, evil flickers around the edges. A sluttish wife hovers like a wasp; a jealous husband rages; a farm worker finds pleasure in shooting a dog.George is like a man trying to hold up a house as it crumbles around his ears. Ultimately, Lennie fulfils his tragic destiny. Someone is killed, a posse is assembled. And, in one of the most cringe-worthy scenes of modern theatre,  it is left to George to put his poor friend out of his misery.Gary Farmer played the role of Lennie decades ago under the direction of Brian Richmond, who oversees this production. It’s easy to see why Richmond wanted him back. Farmer exudes a larger-than-life charisma. As Lennie, his joyful, childlike laughs — head thrown back — are irresistible even when he’s saying things that are distasteful.Farmer’s performance on Thursday night was vaudevillian in the best sense of the word. A big man, he brings a wonderful physicality to the role, both in gesture and facial expression. There was a bit of Red Skelton (the good Red, not the hammy Red) in Farmer’s acting. It was difficult to imagine someone else playing the role — always a sign an actor is doing something right.David Ferry returns to Blue Bridge as George. Of the two leads, this is the more complicated. The character is mostly reactive, with George putting out fires while fretfully planning for the future. Ferry captured George’s sentimentality and ever-present thrumming anxiety. His interpretation is shot through with a certain intensity; we sense George is motivated by many things, anger being predominant. This was, overall, a convincing performance — with one caveat. When George learns Lennie has committed a terrible deed — one that destroys their world in one fell swoop — Ferry’s reaction was curiously restrained. This flat affect was doubtlessly intentional, to show the character was in shock. It didn’t work, though. The scene was lifeless and unconvincing.Interestingly, Ferry employed a similar approach in the climactic final scene, when — in an act of terrible kindness — he must take his friend’s life. As Lennie implores his friend, “Tell me how it’s going be,” Ferry’s George once again seemed disconnected. Yet somehow, this turn radiated a strange, glittering power. We saw admirably understated acting from both men in this terribly challenging sequence, superbly directed by Richmond. It’s a great cast. Brian Linds finds comedy and pathos in the role of Candy, a handicapped old man. At times, his portrayal threatened to down-shift into dangerous Hee-Haw territory, but Linds skilfully avoided overdoing it. Christopher Mackie exhibited a welcome gravitas as Slim, the decent man who is the play’s moral compass. Sebastien Archibald also impressed as an exuberant young farm worker.The well-behaved Boomer, a border collie who plays Candy’s pet, was no slouch, either. Under Richmond’s direction, the production’s tone is heightened but never over the top. This seems appropriate in such a period piece. (For me, it somehow brought to mind Sybil Andrews’ bold, stylized linocuts of working men in the 1920s and ’30s.) His approach melded well with Ian Rye’s excellent set pieces of bunkhouses and barns. These conjure up the setting authentically, yet at the same time seem like works of art — monumental and beautifully simple.achamberlain@timescolonist.com