Of Mice and Men is a classic of American modernist fiction. Steinbeck’s original novella has become an iconic and cherished cry for the working man’s life. Worse even than that, it has become a high school curriculum mainstay the world over. This means that Blue Bridge Theatre has taken on a substantial task in reviving Of Mice and Men for the stage. Their show has to overcome or even outdo the expectations of those who have loved that book and yet appeal to those who were begrudgingly exposed to it as part of an exercise in forced reading. It’s a challenge that Blue Bridge easily matches. Rarely a company to disappoint, Blue Bridge has outdone itself here, creating in Of Mice and Men a remarkable, fluid, and powerful production that respects the original script without ever compromising on its own interpretive vision.

Blue Bridge is helped in their task by a remarkable script adapted by John Steinbeck himself. Steinbeck originally wrote his novel as an experiment in dialogue. Essentially he wanted to drive the plot of the novel through its dialogue, creating “a play that can be read or a novel that can be played”. This means that the novella is a natural fit on the stage. The play tells the story of Lennie and George, two Depression Era itinerant workers looking for work in California. George is a clever but uneducated man who dreams of having his own small plot of land where he could be his own boss. His friend Lennie is a giant of a man but is mentally little more than a child. Lennie’s greatest pleasure in life is to pet soft things but the mice and puppies he enjoys playing with are inevitably crushed in his powerful hands. The play is a tragedy centering on George and Lennie’s struggle to raise enough money to buy their own plot and the inevitable moment when Lennie’s strength and childishness lead to a tragic death.

Any production of “Of Mice and Men” is founded on the performance of George and Lennie. These are iconic roles and – since these are dramatic characters who are slightly absurd – there is a lot that can go wrong here. Remarkably, the actors behind these two roles embody their characters so completely that they have made these icons their own. Gary Farmer’s interpretation of Lennie is tragic and heart-breaking, ironically, due to his innocent, wide-smiling cheerfulness. Farmer manages to realize Lennie in a sweet way that can get laughs from the audience without ever turning the character into a buffoon or clown. Even more impressive is David Ferry as George Milton. Ferry is still well remembered for his turn as Willie Loman a few years ago in Blue Bridge’s Death of a Salesman. Here, however, he is even more impressive. From his exhausted stoop to the aching but fastidious way he sits down to his constant alertness, Ferry is every inch the intelligent, uneducated, almost-beaten labourer of the book. Both Farmer’s and Ferry’s performances are brilliantly crafted, remarkably detailed creations and would have kept me enthralled even without Steinbeck’s plot.

Of course, not all of the performances can be equal to the two leads. Brian Linds, who was hilarious as Major Petkoff in “Arms and the Man” is almost a caricature here as Candy, an older farm hand who has lost his arm and become afraid of his own mortality. The directorial choice to make him absurd – with a falsely grayed beard and a creaking voice – robs Candy of his most poignant moments, which is a shame for such an important supporting character. Samantha Richard, who plays Curly’s Wife (the actual name of the character) did not quite evoke the sultriness or sexual charisma needed to represent a true threat in her role as the play’s femme fatale. Indeed, when she was called a “slut” after her first appearance, the audience took it as a joke. Because of this, the men’s fear of her sexuality simply comes off as cruelty too early in the script, ruining the reveal of humanity in her monologue towards the climax of the play. These performances are more than made up for, however, by the ensemble as a whole. As an example, Christopher Mackie as the man’s man farm hand Slim is excellent, as is Michael Armstrong as the brutally callous Carlson.

The set reveals a wonderful attention to detail, evoking the dirtiness and ramshackle quality of a Depression era farm. The design is highly flexible easily moving from the claustrophobia of the workers’ bunks to the openness of the fields. The movement between sets is well choreographed and rarely drops the plot. The production does seem to indulge itself in these movements, however. Instead of changing sets during intermission, for example, the first thing we see in the second half is a well-rehearsed but unnecessary set change. And while we are picking on small details, it should be noted that the sound design was rather up and down. In particular, the gunshot sound effect that was used was particularly poor and hokey, unraveling much of the tension created by Ferry and Farmer in the moving final scene.

The minor flaws in this production, however, never even come close to derailing the evening. This is a stunning production and easily the best of Blue Bridge’s season so far. Blue Bridge has managed to match a classic of modern theatre with their own brilliance for natural interpretations. This is an unforgettable evening at the theatre: beautiful, thoughtful, and brutally moving.