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Of Mice and Men (Petaluma)

The basic elements of good theatre are easy to list: script, director, designers, performers and ultimately an audience. With an abundance of talent from all fronts, Sonoma County produces a lot of good theatre.  Occasionally, the quality of those elements is of such a high standard that they come together to produce an evening of great theatre. So it is with Cinnabar Theater’s current production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, running now with performances extended through April 13.

“Of Mice and Men” is Steinbeck’s story of two migrant laborers on the move throughout California during the time of the Depression. They take on tough jobs with the hope of saving up their money and buying a farm of their own. George (Keith Baker) and Lennie (Samson Hood) have been traveling together for a while.  Their need to move on is often the result of some trouble that Lennie has stirred up. Lennie is, using the vernacular of the time, “not quite right.” Lennie has the mind of a child but the strength of an ox. George is very protective of Lennie, but Lennie’s inability to control himself, particularly in his petting of “soft things”, has George often wondering how much easier his life would be without him.  

They arrive on a farm in the Salinas Valley and circumstances appear to be improving for them.  They partner up with an old ranch hand (Clark Miller) and their dreams of a piece of land of their own may just be one payday away. All they have to do is stay clear of the ranch owner’s hot-tempered son Curley (James Gagarin) and his troublesome wife (Ilana Niernberger). Ah, but the best laid plans…

Samson Hood as “Lennie” and Keith Baker as “George”

Director Sheri Lee Miller has assembled a cast of some of the best talent the Bay Area has to offer to bring Steinbeck’s tale of the difficulty of being one’s brother’s keeper to life. Keith Baker continues his run of revelatory roles with an understated performance that is the bedrock on which this production rests.  Baker communicates as much with a glance or a shrug of shoulders as an entire page of dialogue. Samson Hood gives a masterful performance as Lennie.  Take note of how much his character’s presence is felt even when he isn’t onstage. The characters of George and Lennie have often been targets for parody, from 1940’s Looney Tunes to as recently as an episode of “South Park.”  Baker and Hood successfully eradicate any comparative thoughts, and there wasn’t an iota of cartoonish-ness in Hood’s Lennie. He gives an insightful and contemplative performance as an individual who would be labeled today as “developmentally disabled.” 

The supporting cast shines as well.  Clark Miller hits just the right notes as Candy, the aging, crippled hand who knows he’s on the way out and literally buys into George and Lennie’s dream.  Tim Kniffin’s Slim is a tower of fairness and equanimity. Ilana Niernberger manages to inject a level of sadness and humanity into the role of Curley’s wife, who is too often played as the villain of the piece.  Dorian Lockett does well as Crooks, the black stable-hand who wants a piece of the dream, too.  The only slightly off-key performance was James Gagarin’s, who seemed a little over-the-top as Curley.  Yes, the character is a hot head and often on the rampage, but his entrances bordered on the cartoonish, which was something this production did so well in avoiding everywhere else.

Kevin Singer as “Whit”, Hood, Tim Kniffin as “Slim” and James Gagarin as “Curley”

The Cinnabar stage is turned into a riverbed, bunkhouse and barn courtesy of Scenic Designer Joe Elwick. While the theater itself is a converted schoolhouse, Elwick’s sets felt like they were just an extension of the existing space.  Costume Designer Pat Fitzgerald’s muted earth tones complimented the rustic set design.  Sound design by Jim Peterson added a greater sense of “nature” to the riverbed scenes and to the perception of a world outside the boundaries of the set.

Now for a short rant on the one element of theatre out of the artists’ control – the audience.

Opening weekend played to sold-out performances and the audiences were – almost to a tee – riveted, respectful and appreciative.  At Saturday evening’s performance, however, two audience members crossed the boundary of appropriate audience behavior.  One chose to exclaim, rather loudly, after a particularly lengthy speech by one character, that she felt “there’s too much dialogue.” One could sense the people within earshot of her taking their focus off of the play and zeroing in on her and her incredibly inconsiderate remark.  And just when one thinks they’ve seen/heard it all, how about an audience member whistling at the dog (who actually acquitted itself quite well onstage) at the beginning of one of the play’s most emotionally wrenching scenes? That must have distracted everyone on stage as much as it disturbed those in the audience.  Kudos to the cast for maintaining a sense of professionalism and working past it and shame on the individual who chose to do it.  The advent of “home theatre” has led too many people to treat an actual theatre auditorium as if it were their living room.  Live theatre has suffered for it. 

Thus endeth the rant. 

A classic American script, direction that focuses on the relationships and interactions of its characters, superb performances from a talented troupe, and technical elements that enhanced the storytelling all unite to produce an evening of great theatre that gripped the audience from its beginning to its shocking, heart-breaking conclusion.   Quite simply, Cinnabar Theater’s “Of Mice and Men” is one of the best interpretations of a classic American theatre piece ever produced for the local stage.

Of Mice and Men

Fri/Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 2pm through April 13

Cinnabar Theater
3333 Petaluma Blvd N
Petaluma, CA 94952

(707) 763-8920

www.cinnabartheater.org

Photos by Eric Chazankin

 

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