MoonBox Presents Powerful ‘Of Mice and Men’ Production at the BCA (Five Stars)

Moonbox Productions presents “Of Mice And Men” at BCA Plaza. Written by John Steinbeck; Directed by Allison Choat; starring Phil Tayler and Harry McEnerney V. Running December 7 – 22, 2012. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 2pm.

Loneliness, despair and senseless tragedy may not be very Christmas-y themes for this time of year, but if you’re a theatergoer and want to give yourself a great gift, you’d be hard-pressed to find a much better present than a ticket to the MoonBox Productions’ offering “Of Mice And Men” at BCA Plaza. This absorbing and seamless gem of a production features brilliant performances by a top-notch cast painting a bleak but not hopeless picture of the human condition set against the backdrop of life in depression era California.

As the play opens, we meet the hot-tempered but caring George (Phil Tayler) and Lennie (Harry McEnerney V) two down-on-their-luck drifters on their way to work on yet another ranch, apparently just another chapter in the nomadic work life they’ve experienced for some time. George acts as caretaker for Lennie, who is more than a little mentally slow, but strong as an ox – qualities that make him a valuable employee for farm work but also keeps resulting in troubling “incidents,” involving small vulnerable animals and women. Unlike many performances of intellectually disabled individuals, McEnerney’s performance as Lennie is thoroughly believable and endearing, which is no easy trick to pull off as anyone who’s suffered through performances by Rosie O’Donnell or Cuba Gooding as mentally challenged adults can attest. He is terrific as the childlike Lennie, who loves to hear George tell him repetitive stories about the future that the two will share together when their ship finally comes in. It is that dream that keep the unlikely pair going, as well as the friendship that keeps the haunting specter of loneliness at bay. Loneliness is the one of the dominant themes of the play, with each character seeking their own way to cope with the dread of being alone in the universe – no matter what the cost of the bargain.

The boys arrive at the ranch and meet the bosses and other workers at their new gig – a collection that includes Candy (Ed Peed), an elderly, one-handed stable-buck who lives in fear of being turned out as his usefulness declines; The Boss (Phil Thompson), a hard-hearted but “fair” ranch foreman; Curley (Glen Moore), The Boss’s hot-headed son with a Napoleonic complex who has just gotten married and suspects all of the farmhands of wanting to sleep with his wife; Curley’s Wife (Erica Spyres) the “purdy” but neglected spouse of Curley who seeks to catch the eye of any man that will pay attention to her – including the oafish Lennie; Slim, the affable and talented mule skinner who becomes an adult confidant for George; Crooks (Calvin Braxton), the bad-backed black ranch hand who is bitter about his second class status as a human being and being segregated from the white ranch hands in the bunk house; and Carlson and Whit, two other ranch hands.

While the cast is uniformly outstanding, a couple of performances by secondary characters in particular stand out: Calvin Braxton (with a booming Paul Robeson-esque voice) as Crooks is nothing short of brilliant as the lonely ranch hand who can work and play horseshoes with the white guys but isn’t allowed in the bunk house because of the color of his skin. His scenes with Lennie when he expresses his loneliness are touching and powerful. Spyres as Curley’s Wife is also particularly effective, not only while manipulatively engaging the ranch hands, but in a scene with Lennie when she reveals her dreams for a better life while conversing with the man-child in a near monologue.

As spare sets go, this one is particularly effective, with most of the action taking place in bunk houses and a field by a stream where George and Lennie spend a night and the play concludes. The equally spare musical score (with Dan Rodriguez composing and debuting new incidental music for the show) sets the tone beautifully for this powerful drama. Costume Designer Fabian Aguilar does a nice job with the period costumes and especially with Curley’s wife, whose bright and sultry dresses provide a stark contrast to the bleak depression era setting.

As a friend once told me, “If life was about feeling good, I’d stay drunk all the time, but then I’d miss out on a lot of stuff.” This production is one that may not make you feel very good, but you definitely don’t want to miss out on.

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