‘Of Mice and Men’ is a familiar and yet refreshing treat

It’s a story that most anyone who spent time in a high school literature class is familiar with – the relationship between simple, inhumanly strong Lennie and his companion, George, the seemingly ordinary man who has assumed the role of Lennie’s caretaker and friend against all personal doubt and societal norms.

Set in depression-era California, Northern Kentucky University’s staging of the John Steinbeck classic “Of Mice and Men” mostly does justice to the material with strong performances and a focus on substance over effects.

The story revolves around two farm workers looking for a living in California during the hard economic times. The focus of the play is the relationship between the slow-witted Lennie and George, his self-appointed caretaker.

Theater professor Brian Robertson directs. Under him, the text takes center stage, though he allows a few modern technological conventions.

When the curtain opens, the initial effect is striking. The incorporation of modern music is mostly effective, although at certain times (namely, when Curly’s Wife is delivering her monologue in the barn), it is a bit distracting. The same song, Lizz Wright’s “Song for Mia,” is utilized throughout the production creating an interesting thematic string.

The set, designed by junior theater major Dori Shaw, works well on the Corbett stage. Shaw avoided cluttering the set with unnecessary extras. Everything on stage serves a specific purpose.

For the most part, the cast does a fine job of giving life to an incredibly familiar story. Matt Bohnert, seen so frequently on stage in singing roles, steps out of his musical theater comfort zone to deliver a believable and sympathetic George. Emma Robertson as Curly’s Wife holds her own with the otherwise all-male cast, capturing the boredom and sadness of a woman who married for all the wrong reasons.

As Curly, Dean Muir lacks the bravado and arrogance that the role requires. He comes off more as a pampered New England W.A.S.P. than an experienced son of a rancher — a guy who regularly gets his hands dirty. He looks good, but it just doesn’t translate.

The real standout in the show, hands down, is Nick Vannoy as Lennie. Vannoy knows who Lennie is, and his seamless ownership of the character never wavers. Vannoy was recently featured in the Cincinnati Enquirer for his extensive list of NKU stage credits, and his experience is abundantly clear in this performance.

Kudos, as well, to junior theater student Amy Rawe for her flawless costume choices. She captures both the era and lifestyle beautifully.

“Of Mice and Men” forces the audience to run the emotional gamut and builds beautifully to the inevitable climax.