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Underscore of Sensitivity: Tom Briggs tackles difficult subject matter in “Of Mice and Men”

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John Steinbeck’s 1937 classic novella, “Of Mice and Men,” showcases the depth and misunderstandings of human connection, the frail complexities of life, and the need for constant compassion. Its timeless themes attracted Thalian Association’s Tom Briggs to line up the show on their 2014 roster, one which he’s been wanting to direct since college.

“The story is so powerful, and the characters so well-drawn and complex that it makes for great drama,” Briggs says. “I like plays that explore relationships, and the relationship between George and Lennie is one of the most dynamic in literature.”
Of Mice and Men
George and Lennie are migrant ranch workers in the Great Depression, and move around Califorinia in hopes of one day owning land. Essentially, George is the protector of Lennie, whose height and physical stature intimidate, while his child-like mental capacity showcases a different man. As the two stumble upon their latest job on a ranch, they encounter a host of players: Curly, a brute, demeaning, and aggressive son of the ranch superintendant; Candy, the ranch handyman, who offers his life savings to buy land with George and Lennie; Curly’s wife, whose idea of becoming a Hollywood starlet is dashed by her husband’s bigotry and abuse; Slim, a compassionate and respectable mule driver; and the cynical Crooks, a black stable hand.

The nucleus of the show comes from George and Lennie’s pure, emotional connection. Rife with love yet provocative in the forms of tragedy which befall the story, the two men unify in attempting to reach the American dream. George’s rise to strength and Lennie’s fall to vulnerability—and their see-saw after-effects—pump the main bloodline of the show.

“George has spent his adult life trying to care for Lennie and feels the burden,” says Troy Rudeseal, who plays George. “He is quick to anger but loves Lennie above anything else in the world.”

Rudeseal is reprising the role for the third time now in his acting career. He last showcased the hard-on-his-luck rancher in 1997 and 1999 for Big Dawg Productions.

“It is fascinating to approach this role again in my 40s,” Rudeseal notes. “I am a different George. He is an older and more calculating man  . . . I hope I can convey the struggle and frustration he feels over what his life could have been and, ultimately, the realization that caring for Lennie gave his life meaning.”

A soft giant, so to speak, Lennie may be mentally challenged but his physicality and brawn provide a dichotomy of dismay. His fascination with soft things also present the story’s numerous turning-points and rise of conflict—especially considering how 80 years ago dealing with a mentally challenged person under poor circumstances and with little education provided more obstacles than one could imagine. Migrant workers lived a meager life and with few resources or access to them.

“The challenge is to find the layers of frustration and joy, confusion and fear and anger, all channeled through the sensibility of a child,” Briggs notes of Lennie’s role. “It’s tricky because you don’t want to play the character’s affliction; you just want to play the character. Justin is such a fine, thoughtful actor; it’s been wonderful watching him bring this difficult character to life. The relationship he and Troy have forged is really compelling.”

Justin Smith not only fills out the role physically, his at-ease demeanor naturally fits with the character’s naiveté. Smith feels compelled by Lennie on another level, too.

“I had a very close relative who was mentally challenged, and I have been able to draw so much from his life (mannerisms, sense of humor,  frustration),” he notes. “On the flip side, playing this part has made me even more sensitive to the life he led. The unconditional love between George and Lennie reminds me much of that within my family. Even if the situations were at the peak of frustration, the love and support was always evident.”

Of the predominantly male cast, Mary Beth Redman takes on the only female character. Again indicative of the times, Steinbeck stripped her of a name in his book—only referring to her as “Curly’s wife.” In the same vein, she’s deprived of her own wants and needs.

“Mary Beth’s character exists only as she relates to her obsessive husband of two weeks,” Briggs describes. “She’s plagued by disillusion, regret and loneliness, realizing that she’s married the wrong guy and now she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

In essence, she’s a trophy wife. She’s there to be defined as a possession—devoid of respect or worthwhile value.

“I have definitely found it challenging to portray such a weak, subservient woman,” Redman says. “Even when she is trying to stand her ground, it comes off as desperate and miserable, not strong. She doesn’t feel appreciated for anything other than her beauty, and when she yields her only power to get attention, it does nothing but get her in trouble, quite the double-edged sword.”

Degraded by the ranch hands, her character’s  inner turmoil becomes apparent rather quickly. Raised by an alcoholic father and submissive mother, she was told marriage is the only place for a woman’s happiness, despite the fact she had her own dreams. Loneliness, solitude, lack of camaraderie—it all adds up to a palpable sense of desperation.

“I find myself feeling sincerely thankful and aware of how far civil rights have come and how much more attainable the American dream is now compared to that time in history,” Redman reveals. “I want to impart the desperate dreamer aspect of her character—how she too wanted a better life, but wasn’t dealt an easy hand. She was a woman living in 1930s when women’s rights were practically nonexistent compared to today. . . . She married an abusive, controlling man and was stuck.”

Community, racism, and sexism run rampant throughout Steinbeck’s work. While some of the dialogue and scenarios truly are gut-wrenching and heartbreaking, the underscore of sensitivity between the lines captivate with greater appeal.

Skip Maloney (Candy) and Michael Walton Jones (Slim) round out the cast. Briggs has enlisted the help of Phillip Cumber, who designed an impressionistic set. Lance Howell has chosen simple costuming of the era, while Dallas LaFron heads light design.

“Jonathan Graves has designed a wonderful soundscape that really adds to the verisimilitude of the setting,” Briggs notes. “At its core, the play is about men trying to understand one another. Really getting to know someone well seldom leads to hate and often leads to love. Steinbeck wrote in his journal that you can write about promoting social change, punishing injustice, celebrating heroism, and so on, but there’s always that base theme of struggling to understand each other.”


Of Mice and Men

3/20-23, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinee, 3 p.m. Tickets: $15-$30
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.

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