TheatreWorks has a powerful story to tell in “Of Mice and Men,” but the question is: How can the actors tell it?
The play, written by John Steinbeck, was supposed to have opened Thursday. However, like nearly everything else in the community, those live performances in Martinsville have been canceled because of the precautions against the spread of COVID-19.
“Of Mice and Men” is the story of buddies George (Jim Woods) and Lennie (Corey Thompson) who ramble the land in search for work during the Great Depression. There’s a catch – Lennie is unusually strong as well as tender-hearted, but he has the mind of a child. He doesn’t know his own strength, which often gets him into trouble. George looks out for him.
“If it ain’t got nothing to do with figurin’, Lennie’s your guy,” George says to Slim (Zach McPeak).
Slim asks why “a smart fellow like yourself and a cuckoo like him” stick together. The interactions between George and Lennie give the answer: loyalty and affection.
The pair stumble upon trouble, and George deals with the consequences.
Though speckled throughout with humor, the play is underlain with tragic themes.
Other characters are Candy (Mike Hatfield), The Boss (Wes George), Curly (Ethan Goins), Curly’s Wife (Brittany Palmer), Carlson (Rick Ward), Whit (Tyler Shively) and Crooks (Brian Witcher). Tom Berry is the director.
Only it appears this production won’t be seen by fans in Martinsville.
Woods, as well as an actor in the show, is a member of TheatreWorks’ board of directors. He was in on the board’s discussions on whether or not to cancel the show.
“The right thing does not equal the easy thing,” he said. “Part of the cast and crew’s frustration is it’s too good not to get” seen live.
Berry said he has been calling and emailing the play’s offices in New York City daily, trying to work out the rights to another way to broadcast the show, perhaps over the internet. Steve Oakes had agreed to record it on video.
Of course, the offices there are closed, but people in that company perhaps would be able to be getting calls and emails at home.
As the days went on, however, restrictions on gatherings were made in Virginia. Now, even if they did get permission to transmit videos of the show in some way, the 15 to 20 people needed to be together to make those videos cannot get together because of the pandemic restrictions, Berry said.
“It’s kind of not a real uplifting play, but it does speak on many levels,” Woods said.
“You kind of hang onto the emotions of this” show, Thompson said.
“Corey Thompson is just tremendous,” Woods said. “Playing off him, he’s got wonderful energy.”
Though Lennie often is funny, he is a far cry from the slapstick Thompson has performed in the past.
As Lennie, Thompson is transformed and unrecognizable as himself. Lennie walks with short, optimistic steps, speaks in a child’s voice, holds his head and face in a wide-eyed way of naiveté and continually fumbles with a buckle on his overalls.
“He’s a unique character,” Thompson said. Lennie “is really simple. He lives one moment to the next.”
To turn himself into the character, “I just immediately went to work” as soon as he got the character assignment, he said.
Actors often don’t want to watch other actors in their roles, preferring to build the characters from scratch, but in Lennie’s case it was helpful to see how other actors portrayed the character, he said.
“I spent a lot of time looking in the mirror, finding facial expressions,” and developing a “simplicity and youthfulness to the voice,” Thompson said.
The final scene, of Lennie and George alone in nature in the aftermath of trouble, had the audience of a recent dress rehearsal in tears.
“You come off that last scene — it kind of zaps you,” Woods said.
“I get choked up every night, as often as I’ve seen it, that ending is so powerful,” Berry said.
Berry added that the intensity of the final scene is too strong to move straight into the curtain call, so there’s a 21-second transition. In the dark theater, the song “Down to the River to Pray,” sung by Lydia Tyree, Joanie McPeak and Amy Stuart, is played. The trio recorded it specifically for this purpose.
Steinbeck is the Nobel Prize-winning author of American classics such as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “East of Eden” and “Cannery Row.”
“The meaning and the authenticity and the pantheon of characters he has mirrors real life,” Woods said, “real guys that he probably saw and synthesized them into different guys” for his stories.
“He was a timeless writer. It’s a timeless masterpiece,” Goins said.
“I’m really disappointed no one’s going to see it in person,” Thompson said, adding that he wishes he could “share it with the community.”
“There’s definitely an authenticity there, and I hope it comes across when we do it,” Woods said.
“It’s a very demanding play, emotionally,” Berry said. “Everybody’s wiped out at the end, particularly Jim and Corey.”
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.