When the folks at the Pioneer Theatre Company announced that their production of Of Mice and Men would be accompanied by an art show featuring the work of Salt Lake Tribune political cartoonist Pat Bagley, it seemed a curious match.
What could John Steinbeck’s classic tragic tale of two Depression Era ranch hands chasing the American dream have in common with Bagley’s up-to-the-minute cartoons? Did they just want to give the audience some laughs during intermission to offset the sad tale on stage?
Watching the action unfold on opening night, it became clear how wrong I was. Bagley’s cartoons dissecting the current U.S. election season and pointing out the extreme differences between the haves and the have-nots in America ring all the more true as Steinbeck’s story plays out, and his drifters George and Lennie try to earn enough money to own their own piece of land someday, a place free of bosses telling them what to do, free of living day to day with nary a dollar in their pockets.
Most of us have read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as a requirement in school, so I won’t relay the plot or reveal any spoilers here. Steinbeck adapted his 1937 novel for the stage himself, and it became a Broadway hit shortly after the book was published. Pioneer’s version adds some narration from the novel recited by the actors, and it’s remarkable how well Steinbeck’s prose can still set a scene.
That scene is a California ranch during the Depression, where traveling ranch hands George (Joe Tapper) and his slow-witted friend Lennie (Mark David Watson) arrive to try and save a few bucks. They meet a dusty crew of fellow drifters, most of whom can’t understand the idea of two workers traveling together and taking care of each other as they move from job to job–often because of some hot water that Lennie innocently gets them in.
Tapper and Watson are excellent in building the relationship between George and Lennie; it’s easy to empathize with George’s desire to protect his strong friend at the same time it’s easy to understand the burden taking care of Lennie is for a sharp guy like George. S.A. Rogers brings a quiet resolve to the role of muleskinner Slim, who befriends the pair at the ranch, and Bill Cwikowski’s elderly, disabled Candy, who shares George and Lennie’s dream of having his own place, elicits tears through his dedication to his elderly dog while also providing some of the show’s humor.
Steinbeck manages to address issues like racism, sexism and class warfare through his relatively simple story, and Pioneer’s production honors the author’s work through a sleek, simple set that keeps the focus on his words, rather than any production bells and whistles. Overall, Pioneer’s producton serves as a stirring reminder how brilliant, and ahead of his time, Steinbeck was, writing Of Mice and Men 75 years ago.
Whether you’ve read the book or not, this is a great chance to catch up with Steinbeck, but be forewarned–you might want to bring a hanky. And be sure to check out Bagley’s work in the loge gallery, too.
Of Mice and Men runs through Nov. 3, with shows nightly from Monday to Saturday, as well as a Saturday matinee. Visit the Pioneer Theatre Company Website for showtimes and tickets.