Review: Of Mice and Men (Unit 102 Actors Co.)

Toronto’s Unit 102 Actors Co. presents an intimate production of John Steinbeck classic

OMAM_UNIT102_FINALS-18The doorway of the Unit 102 theatre was jammed with guests when I arrived. We were all clustered together, eagerly waiting to pile into our seats for the production of Of Mice and Men. After a quick announcement, the doors were opened and the guests flooded inside. I sat in the second row and took in the view. I felt utterly transported. I had somehow traveled space and time, or jumped into the pages of a book, because I was no longer in Toronto. I was somewhere else entirely.

Of Mice and Men is a novella written by the famous author John Steinbeck, who also wrote The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. The novella is considered a classic story, and some could even say mandatory reading. The novella has been adapted for film and for the stage, and has been heavily referenced in pop culture since its publication. This version was directed by David LaFontaine, who is also the artistic director of the Unit 102 Actors Co, along with assistant director/producer Jesse Ryder Hughes.

Of Mice and Men is about two men, Lennie and George, who depend on each others’ company during the Great Depression. Lennie and George travel from ranch to ranch as contract workers, who hope to make enough money to survive and lift themselves out of poverty. Lennie is an enormous man, with incredible strength and capabilities for ranch work. However, his mental capabilities and child-like sense of consequence often get him into trouble. George is the man who tries to keep Lennie out of trouble’s way, even if he is exhausted from it. The play explores their friendship and their dream for something more.

The actors were fantastic, especially the two lead roles of Lennie played by Marc Paci and George played by Brandon Thomas. Paci played Lennie as innocent and hopelessly eager, but did so expertly enough to not insult the nature of the character. Lennie was frustrating and childish, but his mental state never veered into mockery. I felt like Paci found the perfect balance between making me love him for his sweetness, but also shake him for his carelessness. I knew that Paci completely threw himself into the role, because at the end of the play when all the actors lined up to bow, his mannerisms were shockingly different. He was a completely different person.

Brandon Thomas as George carried the weight of the story. He captured the essence of the story: the posturing male ego for the sake of preservation, and the vulnerability that lies beneath that surface. All of the characters, beyond Lennie and Curley’s wife played by Miranda MacDougall, contested with their masculine pride, but Thomas showed the biggest struggle with fragility. His vulnerability was so present, he acted as if something could shatter at any moment. Thomas had the look of a man who knew his heart would break, and he was just waiting for the moment to happen.

I was astounded by the set which converted the small Unit 102 theatre into a masterpiece. At first, the set was a field with a painted horizon of hills and a sunset. There was dirt and sand covering the stage. In the corner, there was a brush filled with plants with a small pool of water at the bottom. Then, when George and Lennie had to meet at a ranch, the lights dimmed and the actors filed on stage to change the scenery like they were working on a farm. They pulled down the sunset painted, to reveal wooden panels that turned into a farmhouse’s floor.

The closeness and the set made the play seem to real to me. I taste the dirt in the air as the actors kicked at it with their shoes. I could smell smoke as they puffed at their cigarettes. Their clothes had sweat and dirt stains, so I could sense the stink on them. Set designer Adam Belanger, costume designer Lindsay Dagger Junkin, and assistant costume designer Jordana Schaefer made me fall for the illusion.

The play was so enjoyable, I couldn’t find anything to complain about. The subjects are serious and will weigh down your soul. At the end of it, you will probably want to hug a friend, but it’s worth watching. It absolutely blew me away. I found myself thinking: This is what theatre is Toronto is like.


Photo credit: Unit 102 Actors Co. (From left: Thom Zimerle, Marc Paci)

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