John Steinbeck's Depression-era drama "Of Mice and Men" practically qualifies as an octogenarian, having been created in a 1937 novella. Its theatrical version is occasionally revived, though rarely with the force and involvement now on display in its current incarnation at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
Director Michael Serna captures the fears and frustrations of Steinbeck's downward-spinning tale of two itinerant ranch hands, living from one temporary job to the next, their hopes kept buoyant by the dream of someday owning their own farm and living, as they continue to put it, "on the fat of the land."
There is little fat to be had when first we meet George (Angel Correa), a fast-talking dreamer with his eyes on the prize, and his dull-witted companion Lennie (Peter Hilton), a gentle giant whose undisciplined strength periodically crushes the breath from smaller life forms. He's an albatross around the neck of George, who doesn't have the heart to break their bond.
Correa writhes in frustration as he attempts to function both as farmworker and controlling agent for the hapless Lennie, while holding his companion in thrall with visions of a house and land all their own. He skillfully treads the path between these two duties, mounting a staunch defense of his companion's abilities when challenged by fellow workers.
Hilton, whose rabbit-loving character always means well but usually creates havoc, delivers an outstanding performance. He renders the pathetic Lennie empathetic and believable, capable of extreme affection or uncontrolled violence when provoked. He is the heart and soul of the Costa Mesa production.
Michael Dale Brown, as the aging and infirm dog lover Candy, offers an engaging and thoughtful account, eagerly agreeing to join the pair on their dream quest. Mauricio Zamora is strong in the essentially one-layered volcanic Curley, whose bored, flirtatious wife is beautifully played by Kelsey Olson.
Other characters in George and Lennie's orbit include the affable Slim (Mark Tillman), the staunch Carlson (Stefan C. Marchand) and the bombastic boss (Bill Carson), all quite effective. Of particular note is the black "stable buck" Crooks, richly enacted by Van Hudson Jr.
The sparse but effective setting is nicely designed by director Serna, who also contributed to set construction and publicity. Ryan Linhardt's lighting effects lend a properly downbeat tone to the production.
"Of Mice and Men" harkens back to a time and place where people lived on the edge with limited wealth or possessions. It's a compelling history lesson at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater.
IF YOU GO
What: "Of Mice and Men"
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $18 to $22