Of Mice & Men at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma and Book of Matthew at Spreckels Theatre Company in Rohnert Park

Of Mice and Matthew  – a Pair of Must-See Dazzlers

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Photos by Eric Chazankin

It’s been said that man can’t live by bread alone. Faith, love, flights of fancy and friendship all make life worth living. If you’re still not convinced, there are two important plays being presented at North Bay theaters that address these themes with great power, beauty and even humor, and they should not be missed.

Samson Hood, Keith Baker

Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck wrote gritty and poetic stories about simple people facing common struggles in Depression-era America. Perhaps his most heart-wrenching and tender work, Of Mice and Men, is being presented at Cinnabar Theater. First published as a novella in 1937, it centers on the relationship between two drifters and has been called “an American masterpiece”. It was adapted for the stage by Steinbeck later that same year and had its world premiere in San Francisco.

The title was taken from a line in a poem by Robert Burns, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry…”. They do, indeed. Brilliantly crafted characterizations are offered by Keith Baker and Samson Hood in the lead roles. Hood was born to play the simple-minded Lennie with his endearing, childlike innocence and large frame. Baker completely transforms himself yet again as George, a rough-hewn yet caring vagabond who dreams of a better life for himself and his vulnerable friend. Especially compelling performances as ranch hands by Tim Kniffin (Slim) and Dorian Lockett (Crooks) bring great depth to the story. If you have never seen Of Mice and Men in either its stage or film versions, be prepared – the story has some racially-charged moments and a shockingly tragic ending that’s impossible to forget.

Dorian Lockett

Sharp yet sensitive direction is by the wondrous Sheri Lee Miller, who had great success with her recent works: Cinnabar’s productions of Arthur Miller’s “The Price” and the smash hit“ La Cage aux Folles”, and “Annie Get Your Gun” at Spreckels Theatre Company. She employs a sense of urgency and naturalistic, overlapping dialogue which draws you into the action onstage. The shows have been selling out and the run was just extended, so be sure you make it down to Cinnabar.

Returning to the stage at Spreckels Theatre Company is  a brilliant comic drama, The Book of Matthew (Liebowitz), where we meet another type of dreamer – the snarky writer Matthew. First produced in 2009, this newest incarnation at Spreckels may be playwright/director Gene Abravaya’s best work yet and draws on his many years as a stage manager of hit TV sitcoms.

Jeff Cote, Jeffrey Weissman, Tim Setzer

Featuring an outstanding ensemble cast, the exuberant storytelling plays it mostly for laughs with vivid, well-drawn characters. in the title role, Jeff Cote rages against the disappointments of his life armed with a quiver full of wisecracks that he slings at anyone within range. Tim Setzer as his gaily flamboyant upstairs neighbor Vincent lights up the stage in one of his finest performances. An electrifying scene where he recalls the painful memory of a boyhood relationship holds the audience spellbound. Norman A Hall as Matthew’s father Howard, coping with the ravages of old age, has some of the most powerful, funny and tragic moments in the show.

The Book of Matthew is uproariously funny, heartwarming and moving by turns, with well-placed bits of magic. It’s fast-paced except for possibly one or two monologues that may drag on a bit. Every scene is thoughtful, centered and strongly defined right to the bittersweet ending. Direction by Abravaya is clear and sure – he knows these people well.

After all is said and done, Matthew makes a life-changing, joyful discovery. Like in that old Nat King Cole song, he finds “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.”

Madeleine Ashe, LC Arisman, Norman A Hall

Of Mice and Men at Cinnabar Theater

When: Now through April 13, 2014

8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

2 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $15 to $25

Location: Cinnabar Theater

3333 Petaluma Blvd North, Petaluma CA
Phone: 707-763-8920

Website: www.cinnabartheater.org

 

The Book of Matthew (Liebowitz) at Spreckels Theater Company

When: Now through April 13, 2013

7:30 p.m. Thursdays April 3 and April 10

8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

2:00 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $22 to $26

Location: Bette Condiotti Theater at Spreckels Performing Arts Center

5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park CA
Phone: 707-588-3400

Website: www.spreckelsonline.com