Maryland Entertainment Group stages 'Of Mice and Men'
In John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” the mentally challenged Lenny says to his friend, George, “I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.”
The story centers around Lenny and George, a pair of farmhands who are trying to take care of each other the best they can. Audience members of Maryland Entertainment Group’s staging of the classic Steinbeck story can watch the pair’s unlikely bond, when the show opens Thursday at Hagerstown Community College’s Kepler Theater. The play continues through Sunday.
“Of Mice and Men” also marks MEG’s partnership with HCC, as the Kepler Theater will be the production company’s new home.
Seth Thompson, of Keedysville, plays George who he describes as a “hard worker.”
“He’s a compassionate man, but he’s also a tired man. He’s taking care of Lenny, who is a mentally handicapped character, and I think that really shows George’s compassion and that he’s willing to put himself through taking care of this guy and helping him along this journey,” Thompson said of his character. “It’s not that he doesn’t need Lenny because Lenny is very important to George. I think one of the cool things about this show, that the audience is going to get to do is figure out who’s really taking care of who, who’s really watching who, the audience gets a good chance to really think about that at the end of this production.”
Thompson said he was extremely familiar with the book, even writing a college research paper on it, as well as watching the 1939 and 1992 movies. But he admitted it was a bit of a challenge to make George his own.
“I had seen Gary Sinise play him and I had seen Burgess Meredith play him, and they had both played him in very different ways. You want to make sure it’s your own and you want to make sure it’s different,” he said. “I was trying to make my own path, and I think through the help of Sam Little, who’s a fantastic director. Me and him, we worked together through this character and found something that molded into something new that wasn’t like what other people portrayed before. And what I wanted to come across was the compassion of George. I wanted the audience to really, really care for George because in the other versions that I saw, I didn’t care for George that much. Lenny’s going to steal the show anyway. Everybody’s going to love Lenny, but we wanted them to love George, as well. That’s what we wanted in this production and make him different.”
Thompson, who last appeared in the MEG’s “Cymbeline,” said the audience will really get to see the men’s relationship.
“I think what they can take away from this is the relationship of the two men and how compassion can really go a long way. And how we can even through something terrible that may seem terrible at the moment and having to put up with certain things, and I can’t give away the ending — even through something we may have to do we can triumph spiritually at the same time, and I think we get that across that in the show,” he said.
Reiner Prochaska of Frederick, Md., plays Candy, who works alongside Lenny and George.
To play Candy, Prochaska said, “it’s a challenge for me because he’s sort of an old broken person and he finds hope when hope kind of seems lost one final time in his life. It’s been really a challenge to bring it to life that there’s still a future for him, which we find out at the end is dashed.”
Candy has suffered throughout life, including the loss of his hand.
“He’s sort of scraping by trying to compensate for his disability by doing little things and trying to keep a positive attitude,” he said. “I think he embodies the hope in the story, that it’s never too late to try to find a better solution to one’s life.”
Prochaska, who directed MEG’s “Red,” but makes his debut on the MEG stage, said this show is really about the men.
“The interactions between the men are just human beings trying to survive, but there’s kindness, there’s compassion, there’s support and nurturing,” he said. “It’s a very sensitive story, told in a very harsh place at a very difficult time.”
“Of Mice and Men,” Prochaska said, also is relevant in today’s time.
“It is a hard subject, but again I think it’s watching people try to do the right thing, and that’s always the definition of a tragedy — everyone trying to do the right thing and everything failing horribly,” he said. “But I think there is hope too, and I think hope is something we really need. And I think on several levels it really resonates in our current time things to be so dark in so many ways, and there seems to be so much hopelessness, but that we need to continue striving for a better place and for better people.”
Sean Besecker of Chambersburg, Pa., plays Lenny.
“Of Mice and Men” was one of Besecker’s favorite books since middle school, he said, and when he found out they were performing it he was “ecstatic about it.”
He said Lenny has this simplicity about him, and the audience can see “the love he has for the simple things in life, and his friendship with George who is also kind of his caretaker; how he loves animals for how soft they are. He loves food and hangs out and laughs about things,” he said. “It’s fun to play someone who doesn’t think too deeply and it just has fun as much as he can, although underlying he’s extremely dangerous with his size, his strength and his ability to not comprehend situations. It’s fun playing both sides of those.”
To make Lenny his own, Besecker put a lot of research into not only the story but about someone who might be Lenny, who is mentally challenged, but the audience doesn’t really know if it’s due to mental illness or an undiagnosed developmental issue.
“I watched tons of hours of autistic kids and their family and how they’ve kind of developed their relationships with them,” he said. “I have little nephews, so I watched them a lot to get the childlike aspect. I just kind of molded all of that and kind of added my humor that I usually humor, my special kind of physical comedy, so it just kind of melded into Lenny then.”
Besecker said he hopes that the audience will “take away the sense of enjoyment and wonder, and going back to a simpler time in America where people were just working, and they were good people to each other for the most part, and helped look out for each other, and formed friendships with people that they were around, and also the strong sense of friendship between George and Lenny.”
But also, he said, caring for someone else.
“If it gives a chance for someone suffering from mental illness and how trying it can be on people, so it can try to give some compassion to people who have mental illness and also the people taking care of them, if it brings awareness to someone, that would be awesome,” he said.
Top photo: Sean Besecker, left as Lenny, and Seth Thompson as George star in Maryland Entertainment Group's production of "Of Mice and Men." (Courtesy of MEG)