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Arizona Theatre Company's Of Mice and Men Doesn't Disappoint

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All season, I’ve been counting the weeks until Arizona Theatre Company’s production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which opened on Saturday and runs through mid-April. Despite my anticipation, I was not, by and large, disappointed.

Steinbeck wrote the adaption of his 1937 novella that same year, when it opened on Broadway and played for more than 200 performances. The play has enjoyed a long history of New York and repertory revivals, most recently a 2014 Broadway production starring James Franco. Director Mark Clements, artistic director of Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, with whom this is a co-production, finds the gentleness in Steinbeck’s cruel tale of George and Lennie, a pair of drifters with naive dreams for the future.

The grim misery of Depression-era migrant workers is neatly rendered by Clements’ excellent creative team. Todd Edward Ivins’ set design, moved to and fro by costumed, silhouetted ranch hands, provides a series of expertly cheerless settings — a ratty bunkhouse, a creepy flatland, a filthy barn — that amplify the players’ despair. Joe Cerqua’s sound design and scoring marry the desolation of a coyote’s howl with the sadness of a fiddle’s moan. Jesse Klug’s clever lighting design offers the only warmth in these deliberately dusty scenes of meager living.

I had all season to forget actor Ken Heaton’s gorgeous performance as Lennie in Phoenix Theatre’s 1992 production, a performance that has stayed with me for a quarter-century; Scott Greer’s magnetic rendering of Steinbeck’s tragic, brain-damaged man-child helped. Greer has played Lennie before, in a 2006 production directed by Clements, but the depth he brings to this role has less to do with familiarity than with tenderness. As written, Lennie is all facial tics and childlike hand gestures. Greer uses these, but emphasizes Lennie’s wide-eyed wonderment at everything he longs for. The effect is an almost balletic depiction of awe that never gives way to mannerisms or scenery chewing.

Curley’s Wife is played by Clements’ wife, Kelley Faulkner. Her character is famously from Salinas, but the actress’ choice of whiney up-speak and summer stock posturings suggests Salinas by way of a West Covina little theater. Chike Johnson is quite fine as Crooks, a beleaguered Negro farmhand whose tightly controlled despair briefly spills out all over.

As George, Jonathan Wainwright is the quiet eye of Steinbeck’s storm. Handed pages of stage exposition, Wainwright finesses each recap with small sparks of nervous tension and enough charm to illuminate this famously sad and skillfully presented story.

Of Mice and Men continues through April 17 at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Call 602-256-6995 or visit www.arizonatheatre.org.

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