In its 52nd season, Colonial Players is staging for the first time John Steinbeck's masterpiece, "Of Mice and Men" - and it is a triumphant first for the venerable company.
Set in Northern California during the Great Depression, "Of Mice and Men" tells the story of two migrant farm workers who support each other, living among lonely outcasts on a Salinas Valley ranch.
George Milton is the responsible, caring friend who looks after Lennie Small, a large, physically powerful, hard-working man who lacks intelligence. George and Lennie share a dream of owning land which George can cultivate and where Lennie can tend rabbits.
The ranch is home to a variety of outcasts:
Curley, the boss's brawling son, has recently married a woman described as a tart and continuously baits Lennie.
Candy, an old man devoted to his mangy dog, has lost a hand and fears he'll lose his job. Candy eventually offers to invest his life savings in George and Lennie's landowner dreams.
Crooks, a humpbacked black man who, because of his race, is not allowed to enter the bunkhouse and must live alone in the barn.
Curley's abused wife, nameless in the play, is also ostracized, and desperately seeks companionship and acceptance among the ranch hands.
What emerges is a sense of the compelling loneliness of the characters, and their needs - like Lennie's for the softness of animals, despite a clumsy tendency to crush them, and the tragedy that unfolds when Curley's wife invites him to stroke her soft hair.
Steinbeck's work is one of compelling honesty and sensitivity, revealing a reverence for mankind and a predetermined fate that is reminiscent of ancient Greek tragedy.
In Colonial Players director Barry Bach's sensitive hands, the play is treated reverently. I found CP's production to be one of the most gripping, honest and compelling performances I've ever witnessed.
Brian Blanchard all but inhabits the character of Lennie, conveying his decency, trust, innocence and physical power. Terrence Averill gives an equally compelling portrayal of George, conveying the love and frustration he feels for Lennie.
There are scenes of enormous power in which Blanchard and Averill recite their strong attachment, as when Lennie says, "I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you." The tenderness between them is beautifully depicted as George retells the story to Lennie of what life will be like when they can "live off the fat of the land," and in the final scene when George ultimately protects Lennie.
Colonial Players veteran actor Ed Wintermute gives a moving portrayal of Candy, conveying his desperation and longing for a place of his own. Reggie Simms is brilliant as Crooks, depicting his frustration, loneliness and human warmth. In Jennifer Haskel's portrait of Curley's wife, we see a multidimensional, desperately lonely and abused woman, who is more than a tart.
There are a number of powerful scenes - Haskel and Averill are brilliant as each is lost in contemplation of a better life, speaking in counterpoint, not in conversation, conveying the isolation of each character.
The scene where all of the ostracized characters - Lennie, Candy and Curley's wife - gather in Crooks' corner of the barn is enormously moving.
The stark reality of a minimalist set adds to the power of the drama, and is especially effective in its depiction of the beauty of night. The set adds to the majesty of the production, as does the sensitive lighting. The authentic costumes are an honest reminder of the 1930s.
"Of Mice and Men" runs Thursdays through Sundays this month at Colonial Players' theater at 108 East St. in downtown Annapolis. To order tickets, call the box office at 410-268-7373.