Sunday, 15 July 2012

Tell me about the rabbits, George

I took a Master's degree in Education back in my pre-child days. One of my fellow students was an older American with a twinkle in his eye and the unlikely name of Auberry Penn (not his real name, of course, but trust me, his actual name was just as unlikely). Another fellow student who had grown up in the States told me she was expecting a tall African-American, not a medium-sized roly-poly white fellow with spectacles. Often, when the conversation lagged, Auberry would smile gently.

"Tell me about the rabbits, George," he'd say.

I was thinking about Auberry yesterday afternoon when I took younger daughter to see the Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre's version of Of Mice and Men. After all, Auberry was named after a small town in California. The McPherson Theatre is full of memories for me as it is. I've seen countless plays and concerts there, even a hypnotist.

I also have a history with Of Mice and Men. Like many North Americans, I first read it in my teens, except in my case, it wasn't required reading. (The Red Pony was.) I was just into Steinbeck. It's clear and uncluttered reading, well-suited to adolescents. Later, I saw televised versions and heard radio plays. So I figured I knew what I was getting into.

The Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre's production is also uncluttered and streamlined. When you enter the theatre, you see a lone tree at twilight, hearing the night sounds of rural California. You pass the sign on the which warns theatre-goers about pistol shots, dry ice, and "inflammatory language". The company has been getting feedback about the use of the "n-word", common enough in 1930s American culture but shocking to twenty-first century Canadian ears. The fella at the box office also told me that people were upset about the death of Candy's (played by Brian Linds) dog. I looked at him pointedly as he handed me my tickets.
"People need to get their priorities straight." The guy grinned and nodded.

What we saw was strong ensemble acting, and superlative performances from the leads: a touching but not overdone Lenny from Gary Farmer, and a protective and desperate George (the impressive David Ferry) who swings between patience and frustration, fury and resignation.

What was new to me was the back-story of Curly's wife (we never learn her name), played by Samatha Richard. Her original vicious knee-jerk racism toward Crooks, the crippled black stable hand who is barred from the bunkhouse (played by Laurence Dean Hill), has been removed from this version of the play, and we hear a long tale of loneliness and a naive longing for stardom which lifts her somewhat from the simplistic role of femme fatale in which Steinbeck cast her so long ago.

Things hurtled towards disaster. In the closing moments, George tells Lenny about the rabbits once more, and for the first time, after so many readings, viewings, hearings of this story, I found myself weeping. A great deal of this could be attributed to the skill of the actors, many of whom had impressive CVs. However, it's also been many years since I was a teenager. This time, I saw men yearning not so much for what they don't have, but what they have lost: homes, family, safety, security. And it's George's desperate need to shield Lenny that leads to a heartbreaking decision. No teenager should understand loss that well; those that do have not been protected enough. Eventually, we grow beyond protection, ready or not.

At the curtain call, I stood, clapped, tried to wipe my eyes discreetly.
"That was a bit sad," observed younger daughter as we made our way out into the sunshine. A Mexican band played in Centennial Square; tiny children cavorted on the stage while several couples danced some pretty complex salsa. Younger daughter and I laughed delightedly and walked on.

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