The two actors playing the lead roles of George and Lennie in Pioneer Theatre Company's production of "Mice and Men," opening Oct. 19, know the experience well.
Mark Watson reread Steinbeck's novel between rides on the San Francisco bus line before flying to Salt Lake City to play the part of Lennie, the slow-witted gentle giant.
"I knew what was going to happen all the time, yet here I was on the bus, trying not to cry, and wearing sunglasses in case people caught me crying," Watson said.
Joe Tapper's first exposure to Steinbeck's work was through the 1992 film version, starring John Malkovich as Lennie and Gary Sinise as George. Tapper wasn't watching the movie. His mother was.
"I was in the next room, playing, when I heard my mother gasp at the movies' end," said Tapper, who plays Lennie's resolute guardian George for PTC's production. "I'd like to believe my mom had already read the book, and that the storytelling got her so involved that she simply forgot what it was. You always like to believe that Romeo and Juliet are going to escape and live forever, just like you want to believe that George and Lennie are going to get that house on the ranch."
Remembering to forget • Every actor attempts to portray George and Lennie in a way that brings the stamp of individual performances to both characters. Tapper and Watson are no different. The trick is to play each character straight in the story's direction, but also blind, as if anything could still happen.
But neither worries about the audience knowing the story beforehand. What they do worry about, however, is playing their roles in an individual way apart from well-known actors before them, and in ways that lets the audience know their characters have no idea what's coming next. Until the tragic coda, the dream of having a ranch of their own where both can work on their own time, and where Lennie can pet "soft things"is all that matters.
"You've got to carry that driving hope of what they're striving for," Tapper said. "They didn't know they had a pipe dream, they just knew they had a dream.
"Whatever it is inside George that makes him capable of doing what he does, you have to fight against it."
When he wrote the opera version, composer Carlisle Floyd left the exact form of stage direction open, explained Christopher McBeth, artistic director of the Utah Opera, which performed "Of Mice and Men" earlier this year.
At the same time, he said the directions must also "bravely embrace" the struggles of its two main characters.
"No doubt, it is a difficult subject matter and probably the more so because of the lack of 'distance' or 'removal' from ourselves and the times we currently face," McBeth said. "Most or our audiences knew what they were in for and, honestly, a certain segment chose not to attend [it was] a little too much reality for what they generally prefer in theater outings. So much of art and, specifically theater, is presented in metaphor ... and this one is firmly set in reality."
If "Grapes of Wrath" is Steinbeck's major statement on the Great Depression's impact on the human soul, "Of Mice and Men" is no minor statement alongside it. Some would argue that it's the more enduring of the two. While "Grapes of Wrath" centers around the Judd family's quest for work and survival in a hard-bit society that threatens to overwhelm them, "Of Mice and Men" explores the more intimate terrain of friendship and loneliness. Unlike "The Grapes of Wrath," where the Judds find an escape, the world consumes George and Lennie.
Once working on a ranch near Soledad, George and Lennie are introduced to a quintet of people less down on their luck than Steinbeck's famous duo, but far more alienated by their bitter interactions. Crooks, a black stable worker in the ranch, is ostracized because of his race. Curley, the ranch boss's son, carries an inferiority complex because of his short stature. His wife regrets that she never became a movie star. Only Slim and Candy, humbled by the fact that he has only one hand, first engage George and Lennie once they arrive.
"Until Lennie arrives no one indulges the need to open up or express themselves," Watson said. "Finally, through Lennie's innocence, others find a chink in the armor of their own loneliness."
What Steinbeck's classic tale calls into question more than anything else is the consequences of friendship, Tapper said. All friendships experience stress and pressure, some surviving while others die. As tragic as the play's end is, it also resonates with the sense that the deep and abiding friendship of George and Lennie endures. It's about the promise of friendship we make, but hope we'll never be forced to keep.
"That George would take on the burden of loneliness for the rest of his life so that Lennie wouldn't have to feel the pain and torture he's going to getthat's how deeply he cares for George," Tapper said.
PTC's production of Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men'
When • Oct. 19-Nov. 3; Monday-Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 South 1400 East, Salt Lake City
Info • $25-$44. Call 801-581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org for more information.