Filled with pathos tempered by humor, this year’s Classics at Brucemore production, “Of Mice and Men,” finds itinerant farmhands George and Lennie chasing the American dream during The Great Depression. Beset with obstacles at every turn, their challenges continue to resonate eight decades later.
“It’s about a couple of friends who are trying to make enough money to get their own land. Within that simple plot is a vast number of themes — relationships of characters — all kinds of things that percolate throughout,” said director Jason Alberty, 50, of Cedar Rapids.
The 1937 John Steinbeck drama opens tonight (7/11) and continues through July 20 on the outdoor stage behind Brucemore mansion in southeast Cedar Rapids. The action takes place on a ranch near Steinbeck’s native Salinas valley south of San Francisco, a setting well-suited to Brucemore’s natural amphitheater, surrounded by soaring trees and the nighttime chirps and croaks from the nearby duck pond.
“The setting is the supporting cast member of every production we do,” said David Jansen, Brucemore’s executive director. “The way that (directors) can incorporate it into the play is critical, and Jason had some ideas about how to do that with ‘Of Mice and Men’ that are very exciting.”
In the beginning, George and Lennie arrive at the ranch looking for work. More like brothers than mere co-workers, George serves as a caretaker and guardian for Lennie, trying to keep him out of trouble. A large, intellectually disabled man, Lennie loves to pet soft things and doesn’t know his own strength, which sparks a series of tragic events.
“There’s a lot of emotional turmoil,” said Kerry Patrick, 44, of Cedar Rapids, who plays George. “There’s a lot of realization that Lennie just can’t really deal in this world.”
This is his third Brucemore show, after “As You Like It” and “Lysistrata.” He fondly recalled going to other Brucemore shows during his high school and college years, and now enjoys the opportunity to be part of what show participants call “Camp Brucemore.”
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“A lot of the people you work with are very professional,” he said, “and it’s just an opportunity to have fun outdoors. And I love the space.”
The grounds also offer him the chance to walk off the deep emotions he must mine for the show’s harrowing finale.
James Campen, 47, of Cedar Rapids, is stepping into his first leading role, as Lennie.
“This is so extremely exciting,” he said. His first big challenge was memorizing so many lines, then traveling Lennie’s emotional roller coaster, from the excitement of going to a new place, to the discovery that everyone on the ranch is mean, then suffering the consequences of his actions.
Steinbeck found the perfect title for his book and subsequent play in Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse,” which says, in essence: “The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.”
“The (themes) that hit me the most,” Alberty added, “are the ones that I think are really prevalent right now in American society: the seeming inability to acquire the American dream; and the fact that many of us are surrounded by people, and yet, even with technology and social media, there is this innate loneliness that we all have that is covered in this veneer of sociability. Many of us have a thousand Facebook friends, but know almost none of them. Those are the two really heavy themes of the show that really strike me.
“Then there are all the sub-themes: friendship (and) what does it mean to be a male in whatever society you’re in. We have the character of Curley, who is always interested in the violent reaction. We have the character of Slim, who is always interested in the intellectual reaction. Those guys are always kind of fighting together, too.
“There’s so much in this text, which is why (the play) keeps getting done,” said Alberty, 50, of Cedar Rapids. “It’s absolutely relevant for today — and the more we work with it, the more it seems so.
“One of the undercurrents is not just the divide between the rest of the world and 1 percent, but also the seeming inability of the people on the lower socioeconomic rung to be able to move up. There’s this feeling that everything is sort of stacked against them.
“There are two lines in the show that are so prescient. One is by Crooks, who is the African-American stable hand, and he says, ‘This desire for land is just like heaven — nobody ever gets new land and nobody ever gets to heaven,’ which is so painful, and yet seems so present.
“The other is from Curley’s wife when she’s looking at this dead puppy. She says: ‘He’s a mongrel. This county is filled with mongrels.’ And of course, there’s more than just the dog that’s behind that.
“So both of those lines, every night, they just hit me.”
Alberty noted that Steinbeck softened the wife’s character when reworking his novella for the stage, to make her more likable, which in turn, made her even more tragic. She is the only female character in the show, and isn’t given a name.
“All she wants is connection with someone else,” Alberty said. “She just wants to connect with another human being, and her attempts to connect are always taken sexually rather than what in my mind they are meant to be. ... You can take this character and mold it into what you want it to mean.”
A loneliness born of isolation is pervasive with Crooks, who is shunned by the others for being black. The language in the show, born of the vernacular of the 1930s, has made the book a target for removal from schools and libraries.
“The ‘N’ word is quite prevalent,” Alberty said. “We’ve got to understand that’s in a specific time and place,” and in one exchange, the word is used as an adjective, “not necessarily as an attack.”
“Crooks is one of the most important characters in the piece,” Alberty said, “because he is the absolute center of that sense of isolation. The isolation that he feels, that he is attacked with, is easier to see, and Steinbeck uses that character to show isolation in an easier way.”
Alberty, who “hates” such language, points to the introduction to a DVD cartoon set, in which Whoopi Goldberg said, in essence: “There is really racially ugly stuff in these children’s cartoons, but we did not expurgate any of it, because to do that would be to deny that it ever happened, and denying that it ever happened gives the opportunity for the struggle to look less important.”
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Much like Brucemore’s 2005 production of Steinbeck’s other classic, “The Grapes of Wrath,” all of these factors will roll into “another emotional experience” for audiences, Alberty said.
“The show is so beautiful,” he said. “The relationship between (George and Lennie) is so complicated and loving and familial, that the end scene is so emotionally complicated. It’s going to be the kind of show that people will want to talk about after they leave the space.”
WHAT: Classics at Brucemore presents “Of Mice and Men”
WHERE: Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater, Brucemore, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today (7/11) to Saturday (7/13) and July 18 to 20
TICKETS: $20 adults, $15 students in advance; $25 after 3:30 p.m. show day and at the gate; Brucemore Gift Shop, (319) 362-7375 or Brucemore.org
EXTRAS: Gates open 6:30 p.m., bring seating and picnics, water on sale before show and at intermission, no pets, show not recommended for young children