Hilberry’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is moving, memorable

Photo by Nikki Allen

Photo by Nikki Allen

The Hilberry Theatre presents John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” through Feb. 5 in rotating repertory. Peter Prouty (left) plays George, and Erman Jones (right) plays Lennie. The story, set during the Depression, follows two migrant workers and their quest for the American dream. For tickets and more information, call the box office at (313) 577-2972 or go to www.hilberry.com.

By Sue Suchyta
The Hilberry Theatre, Wayne State University’s graduate repertory company, continues its season with John Steinbeck’s classic tale “Of Mice and Men.”

The story of ordinary folks who dream of a place of their own during tough economic times mirror the challenges many face today. It also exposes the prejudices that drive so many human interactions without being overt or preachy.

The graduate company, both actors and technicians, offer a well-performed, deeply moving show with professional production values – one that audiences won’t want to miss.

Protagonists George and Lennie travel together during the Great Depression looking for seasonal work on farms and ranches. George is smart but suspicious and guarded. Lennie is mentally handicapped – he has a man’s strength but a young child’s perceptions, intellect and attention span. George tries to protect him from taunts and harm – both physical and psychological.

Steinbeck also covertly used the play to get audiences to examine the preconceived racism his characters face because of ingrained, institutionalized role expectations. A lonely young wife is summarily judged a dangerous flirt; a black ranch hand is automatically segregated; and a mentally challenged man instantly evokes fear and suspicion.

However, despite the characters’ preconceived notions about each other’s differences, they bring uniqueness to each role, and avoid the stereotypes that would be so easy to embrace. Instead of uneducated, quick-to-judge ranch hands we see fully developed characters worry about a fellow farmhand with a dying dog, one with a disability and others with fragile and unlikely dreams.

Peter Schmidt’s set design paired with Thomas Schraeder’s lighting design is visually stunning. They provide a rich tapestry of color and texture as the backdrop. The massive burlap drop is textured to resemble fields, hills and clouds when lit with a varying pallet of hues. The backdrop is fabric art awash in colored light, and like a work of art is best appreciated when seen.

Peter Prouty as George and Erman Jones as Lennie anchor the show. Prouty is the protector with a chip on his shoulder, while Jones plays the mentally challenged Lennie with a child’s mind but a man’s strength.

Jones fully incorporates the halting, childlike speech of a mentally challenged adult. Prouty shows his stress level through the repressed anger beneath the tight rein of control. Both actors deliver superb performances.

Allen Ball as Candy, the aging, handicapped ranch hand is also a strong component of the cast, as he eagerly embraces George and Lennie’s dream of a small farm.

Jordan Whalen as Slim brings a quiet power and confident authority to the role of Slim.

Vanessa Sawson, as Curley’s wife, makes it clear that she is a lonely young woman in an unfamiliar world, and not the simplistic flirt some interpretations make her out to be.

Edmund Alyn Jones as the segregated black farmhand rises above the character’s anger to give him an insightful sense of humor and a very human, likeable persona.

The dynamics of the entire company makes it easy to forget that the story unfolding on the stage is an intentionally moving fiction and not an actual human tragedy.

“Of Mice and Men” runs through Feb. 5 in rotating repertory. Tickets are $25 to $30 and available through the box office, at (313) 577-2972, or online at www.wsushows.com. The Hilberry is at 4743 Cass at Hancock on the WSU campus in Detroit.