- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

By most accounts, America’s Great Depression was a drawn-out ordeal, and Olney Theatre Center captures those Dust Bowl doldrums in a production of “Of Mice and Men” that pokes along like a tumbleweed.

Despite spectacular performances by Christopher Lane as the slow-witted strongman Lennie and Richard Pilcher as his ornery caretaker, George, this staging directed by Alan Wade fails to stir the heart and conscience the way John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel does, and seems to last as long as hard times.

Steinbeck country isn’t for the lily-livered. The agricultural ranches of Northern California are the kinds of places where they call a guy with one arm Candy (John Dow) and a fellow who got kicked in the back by a horse Crooks (Keith N. Johnson). The men are leathery and down to their last buck, the women are floozies.

“Of Mice and Men” charts the short, brutal life of Lennie, an ox of a man with the mind of a child. He just wants to work hard and pet soft things, like animal fur, but his caresses are more like blows and he ends up accidentally killing nearly everything he touches. His lifelong pal George tries to keep him out of trouble, but it’s getting harder and pretty soon there will be nowhere left to run. The migrant workers wind up at a ranch presided over by the mean-spirited Curley (Carlos Candelario) and his wife (Margo Seibert), whose libidinous itch pushes Lennie over the edge.

Olney’s watered-down and soft-edged approach to the Steinbeck classic does not fit the stringy setting where a man would rather shoot you than say “howdy-do.” Although you know from the get-go that Lennie’s strength is bound to result in a death toll beyond the stray field mouse, there is no buildup or tension mounting to the inevitable tragic ending. You just feel relieved it’s over.

The languor of “Of Mice and Men” is periodically dispelled by the heartbreaking force of Mr. Lane’s portrayal of Lennie. He has played dumb, brute strength before as the “Frankenstein” monster, and once again he finds a depth of instinctual emotions in a character who could have just been played as mentally deficient.

Mr. Pilcher’s cantankerous turn as George is a marvelous contrast to Lennie’s pliability and supporting player Jeff Allin is memorable as the decent ranch hand Slim, as is Mr. Dow’s laconic and frequently amusing performance as Candy.

A show does not exactly leap from page to stage when you find yourself staring up over the actors and thinking “What pretty lighting” (designer Charlie Morrison creates painterly, harvest-season California skies) and admiring the stark silhouettes of Carl Gudenius’ scenery.

But then again, there are acres of time to ponder production values with set changes that seem to crawl across the stage and an overall meandering pace that seems at odds in a story about hardscrabble survival, dashed American dreams, lust, tough guys and murder.

**

WHAT: “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 28.

TICKETS: $15 to $46

PHONE: 301/924-3400

WEB SITE: www.olneytheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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