John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men captured the hearts of Depression-era America with its tale of George Milton and Lennie Small, itinerant drifters and farm hands who formed an unlikely bond in their search for a home. A simple, poetic work, the book was intended to be what Steinbeck called a “play-novelette,” easily transferable from the page to the stage — a goal achieved with much success nationwide over the decades since its printing.
The Milwaukee Rep this month becomes the next theater to take on the work, with a production running Jan. 19-Feb. 21 in its Quadracci Powerhouse. It’ll be the second time British-born artistic director Mark Clements has staged the dramatic version of Steinbeck’s novel, having previously directed a production at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Playhouse in 2007.
Clements says the play speaks to him on a personal level and that it also will resonate with Milwaukee audiences the way it has for generations.
“I think people often view me as very confident and forthright, but it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me. So I related to all the protagonists in the play, who are all very much isolated,” Clements says. “The other key aspect to the play is the relationship between George and Lennie. It’s their friendship and their efforts in seeking a way to escape the isolation and find validation.”
In the Rep’s production, the pivotal roles of George and his companion Lennie will be played by Milwaukee actor Jonathan Wainwright and Scott Greer (who played Lennie in Clements’ 2007 production as well). WiG caught up with the actors between rehearsals to talk to them about their characters.
When were you first exposed to Of Mice and Men? What was your reaction?
Scott Greer: I read the novel in eighth-grade and it had a huge impact on me. Once I discovered theater in high school, Lennie became one of my “must play this before I die” roles. I feel very fortunate to get to work on it again.
Jonathan Wainwright: I honestly can’t remember if I read the novel in school. So really my journey has begun right now and the work is new to me. My reactions are still unfolding, but at this moment the play is very personal and personally relevant.
How would you describe your character to someone unfamiliar with the story? What fatal flaws have led him to his current situation?
SG: Lennie has a disability. He is emotionally and intellectually a child, but physically he is a very powerful, grown man. He doesn’t understand his own strength or have the maturity to control his emotions.
JW: George is loyal, thoughtful, angry, isolated, scared and untrusting. His best characteristics could also be his fatal flaws, especially regarding his relationship with Lennie. It’s like that with so many of us.
What approach did you take in developing your character?
SG: The first time I did this play, my daughter was 4 years old. Watching how she processed information, experienced joy and fear and struggled to control her impulses was invaluable to me. I also read a lot about mental retardation, especially a condition known as Fragile X syndrome. Lennie exhibits many traits that are symptoms of that disorder.
JW: Research-wise, I developed a general understanding of the time and place, economic situations, race and gender issues. But really for me, the play is all about the relationship between George and Lennie. It’s about the relationships we all have in this life, those that both feed us and tear us down.
What about the story appeals to you? What lessons did you learn about humankind in preparing for your role?
SG: I love the full-frontal humanity of Steinbeck’s characters. Even the villains are vulnerable. I also learned that we’re all capable of great compassion and great cruelty. In this play, it’s hard to see the difference sometimes.
JW: The appeal is, again, all in the relationships. The language of these characters is rich and telling. There are secrets, layered thoughts between the lines, and a day-in-the-life sort of feeling that spirals into profound, life-changing actions and reactions. Making daily life suddenly extraordinary, as life itself often happens.
The story epitomizes a distinct place and time in American history, but are there universal truths or characteristics that carry over to today?
SG: Without getting into a wealth disparity debate, I think people are as worried as ever about the American Dream.
JW: Loneliness, isolation, poverty, racial inequality, gender issues, care of the mentally handicapped, friendship, deep love and respect, life-changing decisions, life-ending decisions and loyalty. The more we change, the more we stay the same. The things these characters deal with, are the things we all deal with, always.
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men runs Jan. 19 to Feb. 21 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets start at $20. To order, dial 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.