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Theater Review: Of Earthy Mice and a Soaring Heron

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 28, 2006 4:10PM

Steep Theatre’s aim to produce ‘everyman theater’ fits nicely in Chicago’s self-made arts community. Strong performances and smart programming turned heads and filled the seats in 2005. Now the ensemble reaches further, offering two productions in repertory examining poverty, rural isolation, and misplaced trust. The Night Heron is a smart and funny look at that world; Of Mice and Men never completely captures it.

Of Mice and Men

Mice and Men web.jpgAs you may recall from high school English, Of Mice and Men’s protagonists, migrant laborers George and Lenny, come to work at a ranch sustained by dreams of self-sufficiency. Their fellow ranchhands provide a window into a culture of itinerant sadness. Despite every intention to avoid trouble, George tussles with the ranch hand’s son Curley and gets entangled in a tragic misunderstanding with Curley’s wife.

Bringing John Steinbeck’s Depression-era characters to life is more difficult than you’d expect, particularly in an age far removed from that barebones struggle. The ensemble for this show never quite meets that challenge, resembling guys experiencing bad luck instead of migrant laborers facing harsh economic times. A few individual performances shine nonetheless. Alex Gillmor brings self-possession to Slim, a model for strength and compassion in difficult times. Peter Esposito is absorbing as the world-weary Candy, understanding the wisdom of picking his battles, when to fade into the background and when to climb back into the frame. The cast’s only woman, Caroline Neff turns nicely from innocent seeming girl to seductress to despondent dreamer. Andrew Perez, playing her husband Curley, looks lost alongside her, never sure where to project his jealousy and aggression.

Despite some touching monologues and strong characterizations, a lack of chemistry drags this production down. A particularly sad scene where the men mourn a dead dog doesn’t quite connect. Anderson Lawfer and Brendan Melanson, playing George and Lenny, each have their moments, but these pals rarely establish a rhythm. It is early in the run, so these actors still have time to mesh.

The Night Heron

Night Heron web.jpgFor the rest of the week, Director G.J. Cederquist and his cast electrify Jez Butterworth’s wickedly charming Brit-com/sitcom The Night Heron. From their rural shack in the Cambridge hinterlands, gardeners Jess (Peter Moore) and Griffin (Damian Arnold) seek to escape their dreary day-to-day. Jess finds solace recording the Bible on tape, Griffin prays to his iconostasis. They can’t even afford heating coal, and their neighbor Neddie (Will Schutz) is trying to bribe them. So Griffin works on his ticket out: trying to win 2,000 pounds in a university poetry contest. Their troublesome new tenant Bolla (Julia Siple) offers her help, with results too bizarre to spoil here.

Butterworth’s script puts his leads through a series of odd hurdles, each more absurd than the last. In the spirit of great BBC comedies, any attempt to apply logic makes the trap stickier. Messrs. Moore and Arnold are quite a team—Jess’ low-grade psychosis complements Griffin’s frantic attempts at leadership. Ms. Siple is a delightfully grating wild-card, knocking out a full gamut of manipulation and vulnerability to keep everyone on their toes. Juggling her flawed sense of moral rectitude with her vicious streak, Bolla and her damn strange poetry recitation nearly steals the show. Praise is also due to Brad Akin as Dougal and Jonathan Edwards as The Boy in brief roles guiding the resolution we’ve promised not to reveal.

The Night Heron is the type of show you hope to see at a scrappy storefront but rarely do. It’s a wild and witty piece, a successful collaboration that should put—or keep—Steep on the very congested map.

Of Mice and Men continues Sundays at 3pm, Mondays and Tuesdays at 8pm through March 28. Night Heron continues Thursday - Saturday nights at 8pm through March 25. Both are performed at Steep Theatre, 3902 N Sheridan. Tickets to each are $15. More information at

Photos courtesy of Lee Miller, Steep Theatre.