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Heights Players to debut ‘Of Mice and Men’

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The hotheaded guy with lots of muscles storms into the chamber of fellow workers at the ranch and demands to know if anyone has seen his wife. In an instant, Curley’s appearance turns the atmosphere from chummy to tense. Men on the ranch have grown used to getting looks from Curley’s wife, and he knows, and they know he knows. Just about any answer that George, Lennie, or Slim gives Curley will fan the flames of his anger. Curley is not only a boxer with muscles toned by many months of bucking barley and lifting crates on the ranch, but he is also, mentally, a loose cannon. You are wise not to provoke him. This scene in Of Mice and Men, which the Heights Players will perform from February 2 through 19, derives its power in part from Zach Lombardo’s performance in the role of Curley. He knows how to throw himself into the role of a man who could all of a sudden channel his might from menial jobs on the ranch to another use, rending flesh and bone. The scene also resonates because of the layers of meaning detectable in its source. If Steinbeck’s message and symbolism were broad at times in The Grapes of Wrath, here he is subtle. Yet his themes of power and property emerge powerfully. Of Mice and Men is just a much a product of the Depression as the fatter novel, but it focuses on a microcosm of the society in question, namely, the ranch near Soledad, California, to which two migrant workers, George Milton and Lennie Small, have come in the hope of finding a bit of work and stability. George is crafty, while Lennie is a giant with the mind of a child, his selling point being his ability to buck as much barley in an hour as any pair of workers established at the ranch. George warns Lennie not to speak more than necessary, and prods him along by evoking visions of the place they will have some day, a farm with a cow, a pig, chickens, and rabbits that will fall under Lennie’s purview. For Lennie, a giant unaware of his strength, is taken with the beauty of people and creatures around him, and his desire to nurture small animals in an oasis of security and comfort is a leitmotif. George’s evocation also brings home the disparity between what the ranch hands want and have. To live on this ranch is to live in a bunk house, unpainted, ugly, and barren of everything save for a stove, dressers, and bunks with apple boxes nailed overhead, with their openings turned forward to provide their occupants with a bit of shelf space. Here men play cards, read pulp magazines, and talk about what they will do with their $50 on payday. Many will waste it in houses of ill repute. For those living in such poverty, the awareness of everything one owns extends beyond the material plane and into one’s personal relations, and other people, like tobacco or chickens, exist in relation to whoever owns or dominates them. Hence George arouses suspicion and has to face questions from another ranch hand about what he stands to gain off of Lennie, whose strings he seems to pull, and hence we have the dynamic that propels the story into tragedy, when Curley’s wife, irked by the constraints he puts on her, tries to branch out and talk to people. “Curley don’t take me to no dances now. I just want to be nice,” she says. This infuriates Curley: “Has anyone seen my wife?” The need to safeguard what is his pushes her away and causes events that enrage him more than words can convey. The theme of “personal property” also gains clarity through a subplot involving the sick old dog of the ranch worker Candy. When it is clear that the time has come to put the dog out of its misery, to discard it like a broken tool, the ranch hand decides he is not up to the mercy killing. In an analogous, yet contrasting, situation near the end of the story, George’s thoughts lead him to a different decision about who must do what and how he must discharge his responsibility to what is his. The Heights Players’ cast is up to the task of bringing Steinbeck’s tale to life. Bernie Bosio, a veteran of a number of Heights Players productions over more than ten years, plays George Milton, and viewers will see the haunted eyes and haggard features of a ranch hand who has seen too much of the world in the depths of the Depression. Bosio is intrigued with his character’s relations with Lennie, with the ranch hand Slim, whom he calls “the ultimate Marlboro Man,” and with others. George would enjoy being like Slim, aloof, strong, and capable, but George has assumed a complex role, Bosio says. “George is sitting in a corner, playing solitaire, and glowering at the cards. What’s going on in his head? If you like puzzles, George is one, and he’s quite interesting to me.” The role of Slim falls to Tim Dellett, who lives up to Bosio’s characterization of the role, while Val Balaj puts his physical presence to good use as Lennie. Zach Lombardo, mentioned above, plays Curley, while Melissa Fallon puts an interesting spin on the role of his wife, recognizing the complexity of the part. “She has different dimensions. Everybody sees her as this tart, but she’s really trying to reach out,” observes Fallon. Productions may not have done justice to the complex and intriguing role until now. A veteran of many shows at Manhattan venues, Fallon is one of several performers drawn to the Heights Players because the actors do what they do not for money, but in an effort to perfect their craft. In this case, they doing so under director Jim McNulty, a firefighter who met Heights Players President Ed Healy through a mutual friend eighteen years ago. The veteran director gives individual scenes and interactions lengthy attention during rehearsals to realize their potential. “Someone once said to me,” recalls Bosio, “that directing is what you do to make up for mistakes you made in casting.” But that is not the case here. McNulty has an exceptionally well-chosen cast with which to recount Steinbeck’s tale Of Mice and Men. The play Of Mice and Men runs from February 2 through 19 at The Heights Players’ venue at 26 Willow Place, Brooklyn, New York, 11201, (718) 237-2752. Showtimes are 8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $12 for adults and $10 for seniors and children under 12. Visit www.heightsplayers.org for further information.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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