'Of Mice and Men' a successful dramatic turn for Randall Theatre

Maybe the Randall Theatre Company should try more dramas. The little theater company just north of downtown Medford, now in its second season, Friday night opened "Of Mice and Men," its first serious drama after a string of lighter fare, and the results are encouraging.

John Steinbeck's novella/play is a brave choice. Everybody has seen at least one of several good film versions, if not a live production or two, so the bar is high. The well-crafted tale is also almost failure-proof, with sharply drawn characters, important but accessible themes and just enough action.

Randall's production is buoyed by a fine performance by Sam King as the complex George, generally tight direction by Richard Heller, and Gabriel Ash's ambitious set, with realistic flats representing a ranch bunkhouse, a barn and the countryside.

Bindlestiffs George (King) and Lennie (Andrew Honeycutt) wash up on the ranch aiming to roll their stake, or save some money, toward the impossible dream of someday buying their own place and living off "the fatta the land."

Smart-guy George, despite his griping and efforts to portray himself as a long-suffering victim, takes care of gentle giant Lennie, who suffered a brain injury as a child. King's George is a tough, savvy guy, and a bit torn, but his compassion for Lennie is his defining characteristic.

Lennie loves to pet soft things — mice, a puppy, the rabbits that are part of his dream. So the minute we meet the Boss's jealous son, Curley (Vijay Johnson), and his provocative new wife (Chloe Rosenthal), with her soft, lustrous hair, we know that George and Lennie are in deep, deep trouble.

In this man's world, the characters are quickly established. The bunkhouse is a claustrophobic hothouse, and the men recoil from punky Curley. Slim (Derek K. Mohler), the "jerkline skinner," or mule driver, is the glue that holds the bunkhouse together. He's respected by the others and able to see things, including George's and Lennie's partnership, as they are. It's a fine, economical performance by Mohler, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival stagehand who comes off like a real pro.

David J. Rowley delivers a touching performance as Candy, the disabled old hand who buys into George's and Lennie's dream. Vijay Johnson storms around huffing and puffing as Curley but never generates the menace required by the role, one of the more revolting characters Steinbeck ever created. The barn-dwelling Crooks has been re-cast from African-American to American Indian, an interesting choice. Either way, he is the Other. Rick Hazen is effective in the role.

In creating Curley's wife, Steinbeck tellingly left the young woman without a name. She is the volatile entry of sex into this world. She comes from poverty, she married Curley to escape, and she's lonely. The men quickly make her as a tart, and she is the catalyst for the final tragedy.

Rosenthal is sexy and mysterious in the small but important role, a minor player in a long line of beautiful female troublemaker/victims from Medea to Helen to Guinevere to Hedda Gabler (can you picture a feminist/revisionist playwright giving Curley's wife her own play?).

Heller, who recently earned a theater degree from theater-happy Southern Oregon University, plays Steinbeck straight, relying on the text, which is arrow-straight in its structure and intentions (Steinbeck had help with the play version from George S. Kaufmann).

Some of the scene changes were a bit cumbersome, and the blocking for the Lennie-Curley fight scene had an actor with his back to the audience blocking the action. But the playing was generally taut. G. Crane Coleman's lights helped define the shifting moods.

It is a good thing to have live theater in Medford, and with the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theatre's Next Stage Rep nearby, there are now two choices in the downtown area. The Randall seats maybe 60 in soft seats with lots of foot room.

It boasts an ample playing area, good lights, a concession area and two new restrooms. Parking is a snap. It's not perfect, it's a work in progress and will be interesting to watch. What's not to like?

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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