By Annette Hinkle
Novelist John Steinbeck, author of some of the greatest American literature of our time, set most of his greatest works in the depths of the depression. From the darkest days of 20th century America, Steinbeck created intimate stories that offered insight into the values, compassion and humility that reflected the very best this country had to offer.
But in his writing, Steinbeck, who spent his final years in Sag Harbor, also delivered the other side of humanity — the brutality and the hatred that was regularly unleashed on those who were marginalized and considered lesser members of society.
This evening, Center Stage at Southampton Cultural Center will open a new production of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” The drama, which is directed by Michael Disher, tells the story of two migrant workers, Lennie Smalls and George Milton, who, although they are not brothers, are nonetheless family in the sense that all people lost in America are. Lennie, who is physically imposing but possesses limited mental capacity, and the wily George make an unlikely team. They settle into life at the ranch while dreaming of one day having their own farm. But there are others whose motives are not so sincere. The tension between the notion of dreams and the hard reality of hatred — and the uncertainty of which will ultimately prevail — is what makes Steinbeck’s play so potent.
“It’s not easy. It’s dangerous, tight rope theater,” says Disher. “You can’t just memorize the lines — it’s what’s buried in the pages. That’s where good writing becomes a good play.”
“We have the responsibility of taking what people generally read and give a visual representation of it,” he adds. “One of the nice about ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that it’s dialogue driven. It’s one of the few Steinbeck plays that is.”
There is also a simplicity to the language that belies the complexity. Joe Pallister, who plays George, has found there is far more to Steinbeck’s writing than meets the eye.
“This is really difficult,” says Pallister. “Not only because there’s so much dialogue, but what’s underneath it. It’s exhausting to learn, and you have to understand what you’re saying and why. We got the script it May, but I didn’t sink into it early. I would’ve been shot by now if I had poured that much energy into it.”
“If you delve too deeply into it during the discovery process you can begin to dwell,” agrees Disher.
“And if you dwell, you begin to Titanic,” he adds, using the name of the infamous ship as a verb.
While most of this cast recalls reading Steinbeck’s novella in high school, as is true of much literature taken in during the teenage years, they concede that the meaning behind the story didn’t stick. Now that they’re adults, the cast is looking at Steinbeck’s words with a new sense of understanding, particularly in light of the current economic situation that has millions of Americans losing their jobs and their homes.
“The way the economy is looking, people can sell apples and carry bindles,” says actor Eugene Hamilton, referring to the stick and cloth rigs that hobos of the era used to tote their meager possessions on the road. “The times do look pretty tenuous.”
“History does indeed repeat itself,” adds Disher. “And we’re getting close to repeating it again.”
One thing that always feels contemporary in Steinbeck’s writing, however, is the way in which people relate to one another.
“The human element is always current and relationships have not changed since the beginning of time,” says Pallister. “There are those who are kind and take care of each other, and those who don’t. There’s all of that in the piece. The economic and social situation might not be exactly like today, but how everyone relates to each other hasn’t changed.”
Though the play’s overarching theme deals with pursuit of the American dream in the midst of setbacks, for Disher one of the most potent underlying currents is the way is the notion of handicaps. In this case, not just the literally disabled, but the figuratively disabled as well.
“One of the things I used to really drive home when I taught this book to students were the observations Steinbeck made on the social and physically handicapped,” said Disher. “ There were many discussions with this cast about how we were going to attack the word that is heavily used in the book and the play — and that is the ‘N’ word.”
The book was, of course, written in a time when the term didn’t carry the same weight it does now. But it was still a pejorative, and to keep the tenor of Steinbeck’s meaning without offending modern day sensibilities, Hamilton, who plays Crooks, the only African-American in the bunkhouse, explains how it was handled on stage.
“There was a way of saying ‘negro’ that was used in the west and that was ‘negra,’” he says. “So that’s how we handled it. Therefore, you get the point they’re talking about someone who’s black, but we didn’t have to go there.”
It’s not just the racially “handicapped” who show up in the play. Other acts of prejudice are carried out against those who are socially less powerful in the play — including spousal abuse directed toward the play’s only female character and the manipulation of the mentally challenged Lennie.
“It’s women being second class, the handicapped being seocnd class and blacks being second class,” adds Hamilton.
But in his treatment of the topic, Steinbeck keeps the abuse private and hidden behind closed doors, as much abuse still is to this day.
“Outside the bunkhouse you don’t have it,” notes Disher. “Inside, it gets very tight. That’s where the anger, resentment and the judgments come into play. That’s where many of the handicaps are pointed out.”
With this show Bonnie Grice, who is better known locally as a radio personality on WPPB 88.3 FM, is making her stage debut. She plays the overly flirtatious, yet unnamed wife of Curley, the boss’s son. Though she has taken acting workshops with Disher, this is new territory for her.
“It’s been a real learning curve. Very challenging,” says Grice. “Michael is the director and he is pushing the buttons that make you go there.”
Given what ultimately happens between Grice’s character and Lennie (Seth Henricks) in the play’s pivotal scene, there’s also a huge amount of trust that must be shared between the actors.
“ I like that Seth and I were in a class and did a play together for that,” says Grice.” I felt comfortable with him. It’s real choreography. One night, particularly, we worked on it for three hours.”
For Hendricks, playing Lennie, the gentle giant who doesn’t know his own strength, is a line that must be walked with great care as an actor.
“To convey that strength and juxtapose the overflowing emotion he has at times, it’s a contradiction,” says Hendricks. “But I had to do it. I have a built in relationship with Bonnie and having a scene partner with whom you have total trust helps.”
At one point in his career, Disher taught “Of Mice and Men” to middle school students. So as part of the run at SCC, two weekday performances have been added to the schedule (September 26 and 27) so that local schools can bring students to see and talk about it. Disher hopes that although it’s set in a time period now relegated to history, “Of Mice and Men” will still ring true to audiences of all ages.
“I always have that in the back of my mind, ‘How can I do something edgy, relevant, unsafe and something literally for the schools that maybe other people won’t tackle?’” he asks. “I’m a great fan of taking on the unsafe projects.”
“Of Mice and Men” also features Vincent Carbone, Robert Florio, Richard Gardini, Charles Parshley, Billy Paterson and Christopher Tyrkko. Shows are Thursdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through September 25, 2011 at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Tickets are $10 to $22. Call 287-4377 to reserve.
Above: The Cast of Center Stage at SCC’s production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”