By Jack Lyons Theatre and Movie Critic

John Steinbeck became the voice of America’s common folks.  He understood the hard-scrabble life and day-to-day existence of poor, uneducated, itinerant farmers and day laborers.  He worked the ranches and farms himself as a young man in California’s ‘salad bowl’ area of the Salinas Valley; growing up where was born.

He also understood the plight of the 1930’s dust bowl survivors. The “Okies” from Oklahoma, Arkansas and the Great Plains; men and women who lost their farms during the Great Depression of the 1930’s destined to become homeless and unwelcomed once reaching the California border.  All these folks were doing was just trying to seek a better life for their families in the ‘golden state’ of California.

He knew them so well, that he received a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, in 1940 for his poignant and powerful novel “The Grapes of Wrath”, and then went on to win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, for his award winning novel and play “Of Mice and Men”.

“Of Mice and Men” now on the stage of North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) of Solana Beach, is sensitively, and intelligently directed by Richard Baird, who masterfully orchestrates his cast of eleven talented actors as they weave a mesmerizing obbligato of lives seeking to escape from the desperation for some and an acceptance of situation by others, but never abandoning each character’s hope of achieving a small piece of the American Dream – a place of one’s own.

Nicholas-Mongiardo-Cooper, Jacob-Sidney-photo-by-Aaron-Rumley

The story, in short, is set in the fertile fields and ranches of Salinas California in 1937.  Two-day laborer/drifters, George Milton (a wonderful Jacob Sidney) and his powerfully built, mentally-challenged, gentle giant of a man Lennie Small (a terrific Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper).  Both men have been hired to help harvest the crops on a ranch run by a man called The Boss (Ted Barton). George is the brains of the two, he is quick-witted, sharp and very protective of Lennie who has a fatal flaw in his DNA – an obsessive fascination with anything soft and cuddly like small puppies and rabbits, or anything that feels soft to his powerful touch. Both Jacob Sidney and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper deliver very potent performances.

The life of itinerant laborers is a series of always moving from one farm or ranch to the next; there is no sense of permanence. Each job and location presents challenges with the current workforce as new men arrive to work. New pecking order rules must be learned quickly, along with the do’s and don’ts while working at the ranch.  In this case, the word is don’t mess with the Boss’s son Curley (Wallace Bruce), a bullying, jealous, insecure, little rooster of a man who does very little work; who is always giving orders to others. And especially avoid Curley’s young, pretty, new wife (Sierra Jolene).  She’s lonely and she flirts with the men as a way of being connected to the world and is saddled with an unhappy marriage to the jealous Curley.  It’s not what she expected her new life to become. Ms. Jolene brings a fresh interpretation to her portrayal that is spot-on.

L-R Laurence Brown_ Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper_ John Greenleaf _ Jacob Sidney – photo by Aaron Rumley

Candy, an aging old ranch hand, who lost his left hand in a ranch accident is wonderfully played by journeyman actor John Greenleaf.  Candy worries that he will be cast off once the Boss considers him a liability because he can’t pull a full day’s work in the fields. J. Stephen Brantley, as Slim, the lead ranch hand delivers a solid performance as the man the ranch hands look to as the voice of common sense and reason in the bunkhouse.

Justin Lang as ranch hand Whit and Max Macke as Carlson, the dour, unfeeling, pragmatic ranch hand who shoots Candy’s ailing old dog Sonny, are all wonderfully in the moment in their on-stage appearances.

Laurence Brown as Crooks, the African-American stable hand who sleeps in the barn turns in an absolute gem of a performance. He’s the crusty, bitter, philosopher of the play.  He explains to Lennie how life takes many twists and turns and how everyone has to learn to navigate their fraught journeys.  Lennie doesn’t understand what Crooks is telling him but as long as Lennie is with George,” … everything will be okay.”

Remember, the play is set in 1937 America.  Some of the dialogue and situations ‘offended’ some people, at the time causing “Of Mice and Men” to be labeled a “problem play”. America has come a long way in societal relationships since 1937, however, there is still a lot of work left to do in the 21st century.

L-R_ Laurence Brown_ John Greenleaf_ Jacob Sidney_ Sierra Jolene _ Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper – photo by Aaron Rumley

There are so many creative and inventive directorial touches in this powerful production.  The beauty of this splendid production lies in its ensemble actors and their pacing and their impeccable timing which has been choreographed by director Baird that keeps the audience riveted to the on-stage action.  Baird has created a safe harbor for his actors that allows them to stretch beyond their normal creative boundaries.  No matter how many times you’ve seen a production “Of Mice and Men”, you will be blown away by this cast who deliver achingly sublime performances.  One will be thinking about and this show and its message long after everyone has left the theatre.

The technical team led by director Baird at NCRT are always first rate, thanks to the imagination and skills sets of resident Set Designer Marty Burnett and Lighting Designer Matt Novotny. The costumes of Elisa Benzoni, reek with authenticity including the dust and look of Salinas Valley ranch hands; who are not fashion plates. One can almost smell the hay and the pungent odors of the stable where Crooks is relegated.  The props design by Andrea Gutierrez nicely finishes the virtual total immersion feeling that the audience gets, which is almost like being in the bunkhouse along with the actors.  The sound design of Aaron Rumley, and the hair and wigs design by Peter Herman, complete the technical team.

“Of Mice and Men” is another stellar production under the stewardship of artistic director David Ellenstein. The production performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre through November 12th.  Don’t Miss It!