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Steinbeck classic predictably tragic at TheatreWorks

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Sad tale: Gary Martinez, left, plays Candy and AJ Meijer is Lennie in  TheatreWorks’ production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” - COURTESY PHOTO
  • COURTESY PHOTO
  • Sad tale: Gary Martinez, left, plays Candy and AJ Meijer is Lennie in TheatreWorks’ production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

“We got a future,” migrant farmworker George assures his companion, the mentally disabled hulk Lenny, in “Of Mice and Men”: “A couple of acres and some pigs ... a rabbit hutch ...”

But they’re hunkered by a riverbank for the night, eating beans out of a can, and even those unfamiliar with the John Steinbeck classic about California ranch hands – published as a novel in 1937 and adapted for the stage by Steinbeck the same year – know their dream will never come true.
That’s partly because of Steinbeck’s heavy-handed telegraphing of their foreshortened future. From the very beginning – the long scene by the riverbank – Steinbeck lets us know that gentle, stupid giant Lenny is bound to inadvertently do something violent, like he did at their last job, in Weed, and that they will never be living off “the fat of the land,” as George promises.
There’s nothing wrong with signaling a play’s inevitable outcome; the Greek playwrights always did so. But, scene after scene, Steinbeck’s heartfelt drama depicting working-class loneliness, violence and exploitation is repetitive, maudlin at times and all too predictable. 
That’s no fault of artistic director Robert Kelley’s well designed production at TheatreWorks, though. 
Tom Langguth’s assorted Central Valley sets — the golden brush and fading sunset (lights by Steven B. Mannshardt) of the riverbank, plus the bunkhouse and the barn – and the wistful background score designed by Jeff Mockus create a palpable feeling of the dry, remote locale.
The actors work as a smooth and integrated ensemble, with particularly standout performances by Chad Deverman as good-guy Slim, Charles Branklyn as the solitary black man Crooks and Michael Ray Wisely in two carefully differentiated roles. 
However, in the relationship between the two central figures, Jos Viramontes easily portrays George’s exasperation with Lenny but is less successful at showing the deep affection that keeps him loyal to his dependent sidekick. And AJ Meijer tends to indicate Lenny’s mental limitations rather than authentically inhabit them.
Most touching, as it happens, is a scene in which Steinbeck’s repetitive dialogue feels exactly right for the moment. Played with a lovely simplicity by Wisely, Gary S. Martinez and one very old dog, and directed at just the right pace by Kelley, it foreshadows the play’s tragic end but has a compact beauty all its own.

THEATER REVIEW 
Of Mice and Men
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes April 29
Tickets: $19 to $69
Contact: (650) 463-1960 or www.theatreworks.org