In the Harrison Hilltop Theatre's current take on John Steinbeck's Of Mice & Men, actor Jim Seward plays the chatty, friendly ranch hand Candy, and at one point tells a story about his boss treating the workers to a gallon of whiskey for Christmas. It's a charming little reminiscence - Candy, in the terrifically ingratiating personage of Seward, giggles with delight at the memory - but it's also one that would probably be quickly forgotten if the scenes that followed didn't keep bringing it to mind.
There were definitely strong moments on opening night - the introductory sequence between the gruffly tolerant George (Steve Quartell) and the gentle giant Lennie (Matt Mercer) was especially well done - and a few strong pieces of acting on display. Yet like many a drunkard, Of Mice & Men more often lurched and stumbled, and only rarely maintained any sort of stable rhythm. If you're a fan of the material (and is there anyone who isn't?), director Wayne Hess' production is easy enough to sit through. But Thursday's awkward presentation and overall lack of confidence kept you from being emotionally invested, and the performances were all over the map; the show may have coasted along on goodwill, yet goodwill can only take you so far.
At least it all looks impressive. Designer Chris Walljasper's set - a scrappy, rustic playing area fashioned out of planks of wood - handily (and marvelously) suggests a Depression-era bunkhouse and barn, Peggy Freeman's costumes have a mangy authenticity, and Tristan Tapscott's lighting effects frequently provide their own melancholic air; all told, it's maybe the most visually arresting Harrison Hilltop offering I've yet attended. And when Quartell and Mercer engage in Steinbeck's opening, endearing conversation about beans and rabbits and "the fatta the lan'," the performers' relaxed byplay and sweet-natured banter promise an earnest, thoughtful re-telling of this literary classic - exactly the Of Mice & Men you're hoping for.
Yet your first hint that the show may not wind up as sincere as you want it to be actually comes before it even starts, with a cheeky, pre-recorded plug for the theatre and its upcoming productions delivered - by the two Harrison Hilltop producers - in jokey, regionally inappropriate drawls. (The announcement ends with a spirited "Yee-haw!", as if we weren't seeing Of Mice & Men, but rather Oklahoma!.) Happily, the beautiful scene that follows allays your doubts for a few minutes. But it's not long before your defenses are up again; once other characters trickle into view, your initial faith in the proceedings grows more and more strained.
It should be said that the play's participants were faced with an unfortunate, unforeseen obstacle during production week, as the show lost the actor playing the ranch hand Crooks mere days before its first performance. (The character was consequently excised from the script, and if you're acquainted with Steinbeck's tale, you might be surprised by how you barely register Crooks' absence.) Yet this last-minute challenge still can't account for a number of performers appearing so under-prepared. Several, in truth, seemed so uncertain about their character intent, and read their lines with so little (or, in actor Chuck McDoniel's case, such strange) dramatic conviction, that you were completely distracted from the story, and from those who actually were wholly engaged on-stage. It frequently felt like we weren't watching an Of Mice & Men performance on Thursday so much as Of Mice & Men auditions.
But even the show's most focused cast members were sometimes left floundering with characterizations that didn't jibe with Steinbeck's material. The wonderfully amusing Seward emerged unscathed, and Mercer, staying in slow-witted character, imbued Lennie with a hushed, delicate poignancy. Yet despite his excellent introductory scene and many first-rate moments - particularly his beaming joy when making plans for a ranch of his own - Quartell's George was too often condescending and flip, with his early intimidation of the boss' son (James Bleecker's Curley) a true head-scratcher: Was this George trying to get fired? And while the actor exuded unforced charisma, Bleecker was barely allowed to suggest Curley's volatility or hatefulness, due mostly to the others' too-easy dismissal of the character. There was no sense of danger when Curley was around - just as there wasn't when Jessica Merritt, as Curley's wife, made mild attempts at sexual advances - and an Of Mice & Men with no threat is no Of Mice & Men at all.
Steinbeck's tale is so inherently touching that you really, really want to like the Harrison Hilltop's latest, and Thursday's audience was clearly ready to enjoy a moving night of theatre. (Nearly all of Lennie's early dialogue was met with good-natured, appreciative chuckles.) But you could feel the crowd's collective enthusiasm begin to dissipate from scene to scene, and at Of Mice & Men's climax, it became sadly clear that you were no longer feeling much of anything. By the time Lennie was spotlighted in what should've been a heartbreaking closing tableau, I'd doubt there was a wet eye in the house.
For tickets and information, call (309)235-1654 or visit HarrisonHilltop.com.