Last Friday evening, the hot and muggy world outside the tiny Eclectic Theater on Capitol Hill was all things gay pride: drag queens somehow not sweating their makeup off in brightly colored rivulets, teenagers in rainbow beads and spangles, balding men with what little hair they had left dyed pink, women in football jerseys that simply read "LUST." Inside the theater, a gray-haired musician named Reggie Miles played somber slide-guitar blues. With his denim overalls, straw hat, and white button-up shirt, sitting on a stage framed by a few pieces of burlap, the audience knew exactly where it was supposed to imagine itself—the country, specifically John Steinbeck country, California in 1930-something, ready for yet another trip through Of Mice and Men.
Of Mice and Men is one of those American stories that just won't go away, in part because it works on two levels: as literal, factual storytelling (in interviews, Steinbeck said he based the characters on actual people, including the gentle giant Lennie, who in real life wound up in an insane asylum) and as parable.
The straightforward story is about two migrant workers, twitchy but sharp George and big lummox Lennie, as they arrive at a big California ranch. They dream of saving up to buy a place of their own, but the interpersonal politics between the ranch's workers, its boss, the boss's insecure son, and the boss's daughter-in-law are so poisonous that things quickly turn violent, and George and Lennie—despite their best intentions—get sucked into the mayhem. The real juice is in the parable, which has a sad way of being perennially relevant: The American dream, in the mythic land of opportunity, doesn't apply if you're already poor or old or dark-skinned or a woman. And too much hope can be a dangerous thing.
Eclectic Theater brings a minimalist, fringe sensibility to the bleak American classic, which has enjoyed at least three film adaptations, innumerable theater productions (Seattle last saw it at the Rep in 2011), and a permanent place on required-reading lists. According to the program bios, some actors are fresh out of school and others are returning to the stage after a long hiatus, and it sometimes shows—but these taciturn farmhands can get away with less virtuosic emoting than might be expected in other plays. (Some of the performers, including Michael Andrew Scott as George, could turn the emoting down a few notches—he becomes so violently exasperated with Lennie in the first few minutes of the play that he's used up his emotional register and there's nowhere left for him to go.) Gavin Sakae McLean plays a perfectly amiable and naive Lennie, and Justine Rose Stillwell is appropriately pitiable as the boss's frustrated daughter-in-law and the play's only woman, who is routinely (and, as far as we can tell, unfairly) accused of being a "tramp."
But the deepest performance in this production belongs to Tee Dennard as Crooks, the older African American stable hand whose social isolation gives him a bitter insight into what really motivates the petty people around him. "I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an' on the ranches with their bindles on their backs an' that same damn thing in their heads," he says to Lennie when trying to explain the depth of the desperation around them—and the foolishness of Lennie's hope of getting a place of his own. "An' never a goddamn one of 'em gets it." His exasperation is more grounded than George's fidgeting, but even Crooks is briefly enchanted by Lennie's dream—he asks if their fantasy farm might need a hand someday.