Playing the lead in a show you're directing is not something I'd ever advise a young artist to do. Still, it's hard to find fault in Jesse Gephart's direction or his poignant performance as Lennie in Theatre in the Park's Of Mice and Men.
Credit assistant director and regional stage veteran Maggie Rasnick for having Gephart's back. But we also note the solid casting and nuanced characterizations throughout the show.
Ryan Brock's George is not the oversold, improbably heroic figure frequently depicted; here, he's a just life-size vulnerable guy, making his way in bad times, looking out for the man-child he feels responsible for. John Honeycutt's warm as Candy, the pair's aging boon companion on the farm owned by a dyed-in-the-wool Randy Jordan. Jeffrey Nugent's a solid Slim, the stand-up foreman, while we feel every ache in John Rogers Harris' back as Crooks, the isolated African-American stable hand. Under Gephart's direction, Page Purgar's work as Curley's Wife speaks of a woman alone, on a big farm far from town, starving mainly for conversation and simple human interaction.
Elsewhere, Samuel Whisnant still seemed to be finding his legs as the waspish Curley, and the connection between the death of Purgar's character and that of George's dream seemed too compressed the night I saw it. But the rest of this nuanced production boasted interesting grace notes. Lennie's repeated demands ultimately turned George's description of their dream, a farm they can settle down on, to a threadbare recital. We could almost see the shine on it erode with each retelling; its final iteration was all but heartbreaking. Gephart and company have clearly done their homework, in a reading that re-examines several conventions long associated with this text.
Many dreams died hard in the Great Depression. This production gives a few of them a fitting autopsy. Strongly recommended.