Danville's Village Theatre to show Steinbeck's "Mice and Men"
By Lou Fancher
Written in 1937 by the Nobel Prize-winning author, the novella has a 78-year-and-counting life span in the form of stage plays, a Broadway production, operas, films, required high school reading -- even an entry on the American Library Association's "most banned books" list. Timeless themes of struggle and hope -- to accept what is different, to persevere amid despair, to love and honor fellow human beings -- have made the play a theater classic.
The shadow-filled story of two drifters, "George" and "Lennie," who dream of homeownership but fall victim to social prejudice and fickle fate comes April 17 through May 3 to Danville's Village Theatre courtesy of Role Players Ensemble and directed by Eric Fraisher Hayes, Role Players' artistic director.
"I have always loved the story, despite resenting being forced to read it in ninth grade," Hayes says. "It's about friendship, loyalty and responsibility."
Tossing aside teen resentment, Hayes says the Lennie character represents every kid's dream of a sympathetic super power. Lennie's mental capacities are minimal, especially relative to his stature, strength and devotio to animals and his best friend.
"His struggle to understand the world is in many ways a struggle found in youth," Hayes says.
Lennie's counterpart, George, is sharp as a stick. Cast as Lennie's caretaker but operating inside the dynamic of co-dependence, George relies on Lennie to keep his dreams of independence afloat.
"As an adult and specifically a director preparing for a production," Hayes says, "I'm struck by the relevance of the dream. It keeps all of us going. The hope of being loved, of loving, security, being accepted, embraced, of finding a place called home."
Four weeks before opening night, Hayes says the set will create a sense of vast possibilities with images of nature projected onto an open stage for outdoor scenes. A place where hope will grow, he suggests.
To contrast, the outdoors will be reduced to shards of light and narrow glimpses of the world through the slatted walls of bunkhouse and ranch scenes. Increasing confinement or celebrating freedom, sound elements will highlight things unseen, fears unvoiced, social divisions that loom large according to gender, race, economic status, physical or mental abilities and more.
Appreciating the "power and possibilities of ensemble work," Hayes says he believes the collective imaginations of actors, audience and director form a triumvirate that ensures every performance is "alive."
Veterans to the stage but new to their respective roles, Khary Moye (Lennie) and ShawnJ West (George) were drawn to the play by the challenge of building a character with depth, an opportunity to play against race and similar opportunities. Moye and West are African-American, and the roles are often, but not exclusively, played by white actors.
"I tend to lean toward roles that challenge a social construct of African-American men," West says.
The stories of African Americans and other racial groups are often under- or misrepresented in historical, cinematic or media accounts of the early 20th century, West says.
"I feel that having a new experience that makes you view a group of people in an entirely different light will perhaps shed new (understanding). Or at the least, the refreshing idea, 'I've never thought of it that way.' That's my favorite response from others in discussions of race and equity," he says.
Moye says his character is a fascinating amalgamation of loyalty, primal instincts and simplicity. Stripped of over-intellectualization, the role is layered with common sense, a nonjudgmental outlook and freewheeling action. But Lennie's diminished mental capacity is also a source of frustration. Although his roadblocks are different, Moye has used commonality to gain access to his character.
"Being a black man who is often stereotyped and misunderstood simply based on ethnicity and/or appearance, I can relate to that feeling of frustration," Moye says. "The same holds true for "Crooks," who is a Latino in our version, but an outsider nevertheless."
The life expectancy of a domesticated mouse is less than two years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 2011 estimate of life expectancy for American males is 76.4 years. John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" has exceeded its namesakes. Perhaps it's legacy of love, loving, hope and freedom is timeless.