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"I've never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy," the Boss tells George Milton. "What's your percentage?"

George doesn't answer. He could have said "I am my brother's keeper," since the itinerant bindlestiff has an unconditional loyalty to Lennie Small, a child-like brute who crushes the life from soft things.

It's 1937. Fleeing Lennie's damage in Weed, they travel halfway down the state to the Salinas Valley. They find work at a hardscrabble ranch, where at least half the hands have twisted backs or lost limbs from the demanding labor. And Lennie, once again, commits lethal love.

And George must do the unthinkable.

New Village Arts Theatre has had an up and, mostly, down season. It's production of John Steinbeck's drama, however, ranks among its better efforts in years.

Along with being a fine actor and photographer (for many local theaters) Daren Scott is becoming a savvy director. Some in the cast race their lines, when trotting would suffice, and some choices need sharpening (Kelly Iverson as Curley's wife could lean away from slut-hood and more toward loneliness). But Scott has orchestrated this tragic tale with expertise.

And Manny Fernandes takes it from there. His Lennie - so innocent, so eager, so dangerous - is first-rate. Never once does he cartoon or cavort with grotesqueries, as so many Lennies have done before. Fernandes simply is the angelic monster doomed to a path of destruction.

Justin Lang does capable work as patient George, as does John DiCarlo as Slim, the most stable of the ranch hands. And Jack Missett, as one-handed Candy, gets to do one of the things Steinbeck does best: make what we take for granted - warm clothes, regular meals, a room of one's own - sound like the wildest of dreams.

Tim Wallace's set, sliding wooden slat walls, makes the play's technical demands disappear. And Kristianne Kurner's dirt- and sweat-streaked costumes look like they've been borrowed from actual hay-bailers and barley-buckers.

New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 B State Street, Carlsbad. Playing through November 20: Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. For directions see Theater Listings. 760-433-4345.

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