A vein of loneliness runs through Arena Stage’s production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” much like the river that bisects the stage. You only see the river at the beginning and the end of the play, but you can sense its presence throughout the silent water lying still, waiting.
Director Liz Diamond’s rawboned staging of the Steinbeck classic evokes a loneliness that is like the sound of a train whistle in the dead of night or a Robert Johnson song that taps into a reservoir of feeling you didn’t know you had.
Most productions concentrate on the disparate friendship between migrant farm workers George (Stephen Barker Turner) and his mentally impaired sidekick, Lennie (Jack Willis). The two Depression-era outcasts are banking on a dream of owning their own little farm someday.
Lennie is a child-man, a not-so-gentle giant who pets mice to death and who has a dangerous attraction to soft things. George tries to protect him.
The two are loners who don’t need anybody else. But in Arena’s production, everyone in the play is shrouded in isolation. When George and Lennie arrive at a California ranch for work, they find a bunkhouse that is anything else but cozy. Candy (Terrence Currier), the one-armed helper, has only his aged dog for companionship. Another worker, the garrulous Carlson (Marty Lodge), wants to shoot the dog because it stinks.
This is a hard life and these are hard men. Whit (Eric Sutton) squanders his pay every Saturday night on booze, gambling and women. The Boss (Hugh Nees) is tough and mean, goaded on by the owner, Curly (Dwayne Nitz), who tries to compensate for his height by constantly picking fights.
The crippled black stableman, Crooks (Ray Aranha), is further incapacitated by bitterness stemming from racist treatment by the other guys. The one humane character, Slim (played with coiled intensity by Alex Webb), is a stoic cowboy who quietly wields his mule whip not only to keep the team in line, but to keep others at bay.
These men have a prairie of personal space surrounding them. The only bit of softness in this unyielding world is Curly’s wife (Maggie Lacey), not portrayed as a nymphomaniac in this production but as a friendless teen-ager desperate for someone to talk to.
The production is hard and brown, from the wood-plank set flanked by stone-pitted dirt to the earth-colored costumes by Ilona Somogyi. By taking this classic play down to nothing, a calloused poetry is revealed.
The mutual dependency of George and Lennie holds the play together, and the actors form a bond that is both strong and soft. At first, you wonder what a go-getter like George is doing with Lennie, who forgets what he is told five minutes later. Then it hits you: George has no one, and Lennie is as close to a family as he is ever going to get.
The last scene when George lovingly does the right thing, the difficult thing, to Lennie, the person he cares for most in the world is devastating. They spin one last fantasy together, one more bedtime story, before George does what he has to do and Lennie slides into the water with a splash, a delicate splash for so big a man. It is as if he were never here at all, leaving George to face the rest of his life utterly, terribly alone.
Mr. Willis is so adept at playing the simple-minded Lennie even his eyes seem dull and glassy that you almost forget his sharp, canny Agamemnon in the last Arena production. Lennie rocks back and forth for comfort. He is a baby trapped in a giant’s body. When his body does something seemingly on its own whether crushing mice or puppies, or a grown man’s hand he is baffled.
As George, Mr. Turner is a hearty, on-the-ball contrast to the bumbling Lennie. But he overdoes the haleness and frequently shouts his lines. From time to time, some of the other migrant workers get into the bellowing habit. The effect is disconcerting (and lazy acting), to say the least.
But amid the noise and the hardness, “Of Mice and Men” contains a vital message: Without someone, you are no one at all.
WHAT: “Of Mice and Men”WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. tomorrow and Nov. 25; and noon Nov. 28, Dec. 4 and Dec. 5. Through Dec. 9
TICKETS: $27 to $45
PHONE: 202/488-3300MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS