In 1937, John Steinbeck published a little book – a tragedy, really – about two friends scratching by in Depression-era California. Later that year, a stage version debuted on Broadway and went on to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle best play award.
Now, 75 years later, Spokane audiences will get a chance to see “Of Mice and Men” performed by members of New York’s acclaimed The Acting Company.
The play is coming to town for a one-night performance on Monday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox as part of the Spokane Symphony’s Spotlight Series; it also will be staged tonight in Pullman at Washington State University’s Jones Theatre.
The story is familiar to many, as Steinbeck’s slim novel has been required reading in schools for decades, and has been adapted into two feature films and at least three television movies.
The central relationship is that of George and Lennie. George is a bright and hardworking man who dreams of owning his own place where he can be boss. He’s also fiercely loyal to his friend Lennie, who is childlike of mind but strong of body.
As George and Lennie wander from ranch to ranch, Lennie’s strength, and his inability to recognize the power of that strength, prove to be his undoing, and ultimately leaves George in a tragic position.
For Christopher Michael McFarland and Joseph Midyett, the actors playing Lennie and George, respectively, finding the chemistry needed to make the central relationship seem real on stage proved to be quite easy.
“We actually have never worked together before,” Midyett said, in a phone interview from Northridge, Calif. “One of the really wonderful things about working with Christopher is that we really hit it off. We’ve had this unspoken shorthand that I’ve been told really plays well on stage.”
Lest purists worry that “Of Mice and Men” is being set in the future, or re-cast as a musical, no worries. The Acting Company’s touring production of “Of Mice and Men” is a traditional one, McFarland said. The sets are minimalistic and beautiful, he said.
“Being that the set is so minimalistic, the focus does zoom in on the characters on stage,” he said. “I think ourselves and the other actors really pop off the stage.”
“The story itself is just so phenomenal and so clearly told, there’s no reason to mess with it,” he said. “Theater is often truest and best when it’s a visceral experience, and not a cerebral one.”
For young actors stepping into well-worn roles, the challenges are tricky. In 1939, Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. starred in a film version that earned four Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture. In 1992, Gary Sinise starred in (as George) and directed a film version of “Of Mice and Men” that Roger Ebert called “a quiet triumph.” John Malkovich played Lennie – both men reprising roles from a 1980 production by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.
“The thing that’s so difficult for me is Gary Sinise’s performance I find so wonderful and so very true to that type of person. Then there’s the older version, with Burgess Meredith, who is a very theatrical performer on film. There are some wonderful things about his performance that don’t translate as well on film,” Midyett said. “My goal as George is to create a kind of performance that is truthful but is stage worthy. A lot of what Gary Sinise does on film wouldn’t play on stage. It’s the kind of part that is a classical text in the guise of a contemporary play. When George speaks, he speaks epically and lyrically. So it has all the stuff you love about classical plays wrapped up in a contemporary play.”
The character of Lennie is more problematic, McFarland said. While he said he personally adores Chaney as an actor, his performance in the 1939 movie has become the stuff of caricature. The creators of the Looney Tunes cartoons riffed on it a few times, notably in “The Abominable Snow Rabbit” (1961), in which Daffy and Bugs meet the Abominable Snowman, who in mistaking Daffy for a rabbit, picks him up and declares, “I will name him George I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him.”
With the 1992 film performance, McFarland noted, he said Malkovich and the producers seemed “very concerned with having a very specific mental illness or mental difference that Lennie had,” he said. “While I found that performance to be very interesting, what I was most concerned about with Lennie, while not making him a joke or something simplistic, I felt Steinbeck was writing about something larger than any one mental difference. I think ‘Of Mice and Men’ works as an American myth and there’s something very archetypal about Lennie.”
Midyett and McFarland both praised their fellow actors and are confident that folks who see the play will get much out of it.
“I really think it’s very clear storytelling. I think people should sit back and let it wash over them,” McFarland said. “It’s about being receptive to what this wonderful text has to offer. Every night I get up there and it moves me. It’s such a beautiful play.”