by Allison Mollenkamp
The Lincoln area theatre scene has a new star. Her charms are irresistible. Her eyes are soulful. Her legs are just slightly too short to climb stairs on her own. Maude is an elderly basset hound. And in Lofte Community Theatre’s production of Of Mice and Men, she plays…. an elderly basset hound. Despite the similarities between Maude and her onstage persona, no one in attendance Friday could deny her natural talent and her absolute transformation into her character..
There were also some humans in the show.
George (JJ Davis) and Lennie (Kevin Holdorf) are the heart of the show, as over the course of four days they go from another average day as wandering ranch workers, to the highest of hopes for their future, to the depths of despair when everything goes wrong. (Is it a spoiler if it’s for a Steinbeck novella that came out in 1937?)
Davis and Holdorf are supported by a talented ensemble of characters, each reaching for their own small version of hope in Depression-era California. Jon R. Kruse is loveable as Candy, and Maude’s onstage and offstage companion. Mark Fahey brings a quiet confidence to the role of Slim that, even though I knew the ending of the play, let me hope for a minute that maybe he could fix things for George and Lennie. Benjamin Pettiford doesn’t get much time onstage as Crooks, but he puts a lot of heart into his monologues, to great effect.
Natalie McGovern is the only woman in the show, named only as “Curley’s Wife.” McGovern does a lot with the very little she is given in the script, painting her own version of hope in her dream of going to Hollywood to be in the pictures. Despite McGovern’s talent, the scenes where she was onstage or talked about were often hard to watch. “Curley’s Wife” is spoken about repeatedly as a tart and a tramp, the words said over and over again and not getting any easier to listen to. What is the purpose of having these attitudes toward women on stage in 2019? I ask not because I’m sure there isn’t one, but because I think it’s a question that should be asked as theaters choose their lineup for a season. What are we saying to audiences of women, people of color, or people with disabilities, based on the shows and the language we put on stage?
This show is complicated on all three counts, with one black character banished to live in a room alone in the barn, and three characters with intellectual or physical disabilities treated with varying degrees of humanity. Lennie’s intellectual disability is a large part of the plot of the show. It is never named. He’s simply called “not very bright,” but it’s made clear that without George, a person with Lennie’s disability would likely have been institutionalized in 1937. Lennie is portrayed basically as a large, incredibly strong child. And that alone is not a problem. The play, as the novel before it, asks questions about responsibility for our actions and for the actions of those we watch over. What’s harder to deal with is how George treats Lennie. George is supposed to be Lennie’s best friend, almost a brother, but George continually berates Lennie and “gives him hell” for forgetting things and making George’s life harder. Other characters treat Lennie with more or less kindness, giving him a puppy to take care of or physically beating him. The sum total is still abusive. Of course we can do shows where bad things happen, and where flawed people act in flawed ways. The harder question is how different people will watch different shows.
Okay, that’s the end of the hard questions. Now for three more paragraphs about Maude…
Or about the tech! Kevin Colbert’s sets for this show are quite impressive. The show moves between three locations, each beautifully put together. One backdrop, which if I had to guess I’d say was hand painted, ties together the set. Bunkbeds and a sliding wooden door transport us to a bunkhouse. Hay and a simple wooden bed take us to the barn and Crooks’ room.
The lighting (Lucas Hrabik, Betty Colbert), accentuates the sets, and takes us through morning and evening gradually enough to keep our eyes on the actors. In particular I was impressed with a campfire in a bucket that seemed incredibly real.
The sound, as usual for the Lofte, is in that narrow area of skill where it’s nearly invisible. You can hear every actor as if they’re sitting next to you, and the sounds of crickets or dogs barking could easily be outside in the countryside where the Lofte barn sits.
This is, at its core, a show about hope. These characters act the way they do partly because it’s how they were taught to act as men in 1937, but also partly because they are leading incredibly bleak lives. As George sits in bed, reciting his dreams of rabbits to Lennie, the calm of it makes you want to sit back in your seat and imagine your own wild hopes, for a new life, for adventure, for a soft little rabbit to pet and make the world calm down for a minute. What makes the ending of the story so awful is not just the events themselves, but the feeling that all the dreams are lost.
Bring tissues, and maybe some upbeat music to listen to on the long drive home.
Or, alternatively, turn the radio down and talk through those dreams with the people you love. Because even if there isn’t a little piece of land with some alfalfa for the rabbits, there is meaning in telling someone you care about that things will get better.
If you go: Of Mice and Men continues September 7-8 and 12-15, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm, and all other showings at 7:00 pm. Performances are at the Lofte Theatre, 15841 Manley Road, in Manley, NE. Tickets are available at the box office and online.
Allison Mollenkamp is a reporter and producer for NET News. You may have seen her onstage at the Lincoln Community Playhouse or the STAGE Theater in Hickman. After a lifetime of moving around, she’s happy to find a home in the Lincoln theatre community. You can follow her on twitter @alliemollenkamp.
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