Milwaukee Rep’s OF MICE AND MEN Is American Theater At Its Finest

Left to right: Jonathan Wainwright and Scott Greer. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Highly Recommended

Reviewed by: Matthew Perta

In his director’s note appearing in the playbill for Of Mice and Men, Mark Clements, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s acclaimed artistic director, admits that as an only child, and a somewhat shy one at that, he was deeply touched by the extraordinary and unique friendship between the two principle characters of John Steinbeck’s celebrated work. 

After seeing the show myself, this only child can easily see why Clements was so taken with this gritty, yet meaningful tale of a pair of migrant workers pursuing the American Dream during the Great Depression.  This is Clements second go-around at directing Of Mice and Men, having brought it to life at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia in 2006 before coming to Milwaukee.

Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men in 1937, but nearly 80 years later, this story can still deeply move an audience, as it did the night I saw the show.  Migrant workers George who is smart, tough, but compassionate, and Lennie, his exact opposite with the mental capacity of a child, team up together looking for work in the Dust Bowl.  The way that George cares for Lennie, despite the anguish his pal causes him, gives us, the audience, comfort which we need more than ever in the jaded times in which we live.  I ask myself, why can’t we see more of this kind of compassion, particularly between men, these days?

The Rep has taken a moving tale about friendship, hardship, loneliness, a search for a better life, and sadly, a dream never realized, and brings it to life with superb acting, direction and design to achieve the best that today’s American regional theater has to offer.

There’s no two ways about it: the memorable performances Clements’ has elicited from his cast in this outstanding production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is definitely the result of his long-felt passion for the characters themselves.

The brilliant cast, which earned a well-deserved standing ovation at the performance I attended, is headed by Jonathan Wainwright, a model of perfection as the compassionate George, and Scott Greer, who easily reprises his Barrymore Award-nominated role as the childlike Lennie.  James Pickering, now marking his 42nd season with the Milwaukee Rep, eerily brings to life the role of farm hand Candy; Bernard Balbot excels as Curly, the hot-headed boss’s son, Kelley Faulkner scores as Curly’s meddlesome wife whose flirtations result in tragedy, and Chiké Johnson winningly plays Crooks, the sole African-American farm worker.  Balbot and Johnson have both performed extensively in Chicago theater.  And Sean Patrick Fawcett, who nails the role of the gruff farm worker, Carlson, most recently appeared in Avenue Q at the Chicago’s Mercury Theatre.

If you’re a passionate supporter of regional theater, this magnificent production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is certainly worth a drive to Milwaukee to experience.  It runs through Feb. 21 in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse at 108 E. Wells St., in the heart of the city’s downtown theater district.  For tickets visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com or call (414) 224-9490.