We are lonesome animals

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. - Every few decades, Of Mice and Men surfaces on stages when there are identity crises in the world, visited on us by adversity: who are we, where are we going, and who with, what does "home" mean. It's like a messiah coming back with the lessons and questions that insist on repeating until we face them. Steinbeck wrote this from his own experiences as a "bindlestiff" in the 1920s, a novella that he intended to be read from the page as a play.

The title comes from a line in Robert Burns' poem, To A Mouse: "The best laid schemes of mice and men/Often go awry." When I saw the sweet blue light of Calvin Anderson's California sky at the back of the Hubbard Hall stage and heard the toe-tapping music when I entered the theatre, I knew was being lied to. You know how it is - no matter how bad an ending the day has had, with Dust Bowls and Depressions, or Great Recessions and mortgage crises, the sun will come up and the sky will be irrepressibly, unsympathetically blue. Music will play, and people will dance somewhere in the world. Dreams arise and are dashed or lost. We search for connection with other human beings and need to make solid and real what an elusive dream of "home" is. Lennie asks George, "Where we goin'," and John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men gives us the opportunity of answering that for our personal lives and our culture and planet in crisis.

Hubbard Hall's actors continue to go from strength to strength as a repertory company to be reckoned with. The jangle of chemistries plying the stage held my attention with all the nuances and the great heart that this play was delivered with: George (James Udom) and Lennie (Chris Barlow) were hilarious and heartscalding in their scenes, Doug Ryan (Candy) and Robert Francis Forgett (Carlson) were like an accident you couldn't stop watching as Carlson plied Candy with whiskey and the brutal, hypnotic litany of reasons to put his dog down; Doug Ryan's agonized movements in his bunk, turning to face the bunkhouse wall like he is in the last throes of drowning after the shot is heard that kills his beloved dog; Jack Boggan's hyperkinetic Curley, "yellow jackets in his pants," wild to be as masculine as the other men are effortlessly so, a bully who keeps bullying because his position protects him; Reg Jones' The Boss, ever watchful and wary, nobody gets anything past him, his entrance and mere presence a chastisement; Brian Smick's Whit, all full of youthful vigor and wanting to be smart, with no place to take it except a battered magazine; Rob Rowe's Slim, whose exhaustion from the long, grueling days as the "jerkline skinner" can't undermine his kindness, intuitive knowledge of human nature, and his natural intelligence and leadership: "A guy don't need no sense to be a nice fella - only private thing a guy's got is where he's from and where he's goin';" Maizy Scarpa as Curley's Wife, once again delivering humanity to a "symbol" role from her extraordinary malleable range, this time with a raw femininity and longing that exudes from her dialogue, rank with inchoate pain; Albert Verdesca's Crooks, who personifies the particular loneliness of being foreign and "other," his outreaches for companionship like emergency flares in the soul's dark night: "What if you didn't have nobody -I seen so many of 'em crazy with loneliness for land."

Jeannine Haas' choice of play is a deeply salient one for Mental Health Awareness Month. The story contains the morass of struggle between glimmers of recognition about mental illness that can't quite dawn because of the pall of boredom, fear, and hideous forms of treatment that suffocate it. Slim declares about Lennie, "They'll lock him up, put him in a cage, strap him down." Lennie is "other" in a way that can't be fixed or overcome because he is mentally wounded. Chris Barlow maintained a through line so deeply realized and sensitive with his performance of this pervading facet that it was hard to look at him and at the same time not look at him. His deliberate movements and unswerving attention to the other characters magnetized, his eyes were a transparency into Lennie's world. There were times I could feel the rawness ripple through the audience, as breathing changed and bodies shifted, my own included. You may think your own life is hard until you experience this production; then you enter into a particular symbiosis with loneliness, the true cathartic pain of tragedy, and how we all travel that road as human beings. George is a perpetual motion machine of hypervigilance, a sleight of hand with his body and rapid-fire verbiage.

James Udom's energy and agility on the stage are fired with a conflicted love, a tortured friendship with Lennie that has become his raison d'etre, his career in a world starved of opportunity. George could talk a hole in your head - but Lennie's head already has a hole that is sieving both of their lives toward the ultimate disaster. George holds the vision, tells Lennie the story of "our little place," a vision that blooms and expands with each telling, a luminosity that focuses our sense of place on the various loci of the set - the scrub by the river, the campsite, the bunkhouse, the stable, all elevated by the dream's simple beauty of sovereignty and sustenance, sharing and making a life: "our own - nobody could can us."

Jeannine Haas' direction has honored her own Dust Bowl forbears by allowing every word and gesture its natural meaning, the dialog pure with the dialect and sound of the times, every layer of dream and struggle illuminated. The rents, tears, and slashes in Sherry Recinella's costumes were like the lives inhabiting them. A subtle but powerful touch in her final scene was how Curley's Wife's hem had started to come down, and Lennie's jacket was so riddled with rips it was no protection from the elements.

This Hubbard Hall production of "Of Mice and Men" will take you into the soul of what theatre's purpose is: you will leave altered at the end, you will think about the lonely places in your life, and the places you are lucky to call "home." Steinbeck said, "We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome." I think you will also feel union, too - when Chris Barlow and James Udom came out for their curtain call, we rose up as one body in an ovation of tearful gratitude - and I'm calling that moment "home." Performances are May 9, 10, 16 and 17 at 8 p.m., and May 11 and 18 at 2 p.m.. Tickets are available at www.hubbardhall.org or by calling 518-677-2495.


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