Few, if any, masterpieces of 20th Century American writing have penetrated popular culture to the extent of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." Published as a short novel in 1937, it quickly became a Broadway play. It's been lampooned by Bugs Bunny, turned into a surprisingly successful modern opera, made required reading in schools and put on the top 10 list for most challenged library books.
It's been made into movies for both the big screen and television time and time again, drawing the talents of major stars like Lon Chaney, Jr. and Burgess Meredith (1939), George Segal and Nicol Williamson (1968), Robert Blake and Randy Quaid (1981), John Malkovich and Gary Sinise (1992). There's even a film version in Turkish, "Fareler ve insanlar" ("Mice and Humans").
The play adaptation is currently being presented at Sydney Laurence Theatre by Perseverance Theatre. The production opened last month in Perseverance's hometown, Juneau, drawing a glowing review from Barbara Jo Maier in the Juneau Empire.
Maier called the show "a work of art" and said that the company's artistic director, Art Rotch, making his debut as a stage director, "not only put together a superb cast, but wove together the artistry of a very talented production staff."
"It's a play I've loved for a long time," Rotch told the Daily News. He had recently worked on it as a designer in a Sacramento, Calif., production and it was on the top of his mind when actor Bostin Christopher joined the company last year.
"He was sort of born to play Lennie," Rotch said. "We happened to have a lot of good men of an appropriate age so we could surround him with talent. Then the stroke of luck happened. We were doing general auditions in Anchorage in May and in walks Kevin Bennett."
Bennett and Christopher studied theater together at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "We were doing a show 25 years ago and talked then about wouldn't it be great to do 'Mice and Men,' " Christopher recalled. "I'm glad we get to do it now, because I'm getting to the point that I'll be too old."
Christopher, whose credits include several network television drama appearances, is a large man. Bennett can come across as large on stage, but Rotch assures us that he is in fact of smaller stature. They play the two key characters, laborers who drift from place to place seeing work during the Great Depression. Lennie is a giant with limited mental abilities, usually gentle, but unaware of his own strength or boundaries. George -- the true protagonist in the piece -- is a smart man whose ambition has been ground down by limited opportunities.
The two are friends. George looks out for Lennie and, through him, finds a glimmer of hope. But it all ends in perhaps the most overwhelming tragic conclusion in the history of literature.
Rotch notes that Steinbeck could be a very "political" writer, especially when writing about the downtrodden. But the book that is arguably his most political work, "The Grapes of Wrath," while also an undisputed masterpiece, has never had the success on stage or film that "Mice and Men" has enjoyed.
That's partly due to the fact that the politics of the Dust Bowl are fading from memory. But it's mostly because of Lennie.
"Of Mice and Men" was the first enduring piece of fiction to have a mentally challenged person as a primary character. Victor Hugo's Quasimodo ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame"), Rotch notes, and Triboulet ("Le Roi s'amuse") could be seen as distant cousins, but their deformities are physical.
"Nobody's ever put a label" on the specific nature of Lennie's disability, Christopher said. "There are all kinds of things it could be, but it would be wrong to put too much of a name on it."
Ironically, it may have been impossible for Steinbeck to have written his book today. Contemporary sensibility would have demanded a diagnosis and dismissed any diversion from the current medical language. By avoiding any such clinical definition, Steinbeck was able to create a genuine human figure.
Lennie's tragedy -- and George's and our own -- is not that he lacks acuity, but that he doesn't fit the norm. With him, Steinbeck achieves one of the rarest things in art: He creates a new and monumental character type in which every individual in the audience can potentially recognize themselves.
Lennie speaks in full sentences, Christopher observed. He is childlike, but physically powerful and unable to handle his anger. He can seem engaged, but he's processing things in a different way than others.
"This is the hardest role I've ever played," Christopher said. "It requires so much concentration and focus to play someone who may not be that focused. But for an actor, that sort of role is gravy."
"It's really interesting to work with an actor as good as Bostin and notice how much of his training can't be used for this role," quipped Rotch.
Maier described Christopher's portrayal as "amazing" and "flawless" -- no small feat as the powerfully poignant and violent end approaches.
"We all know what's happening," said Christopher. "George is having an emotional reaction. The audience is having an emotional reaction. But Lennie is in the same place. It's hard to maintain. When I saw the movie I cried in the theater for 20 minutes after it was over."
Christopher said that even those who have read the book may have forgotten the myriad elements that make it a classic that transcends time and place, "the details, the language and the way it unfolds."
Experienced as theater, the effect is particularly cathartic, he noted.
Steinbeck saw the theatrical potential of his book from the beginning, Rotch said. He envisioned it as a novel that could be staged and prepared the "actor's edition" with that in mind. What he may not have foreseen is that it would be his best-known work 75 years after he wrote it -- and probably for decades to come.
"I think what makes it stand the test of time is that it is a really unvarnished portrait of an imperfect friendship," Rotch said. "George has dreams, but never really believes in them until he meets Lennie. A big part of the message is that life is meant to be lived together with someone."
The advertising for the show calls Steinbeck's story "A love letter to the American West written on a postcard."
That's a stretch. But it's probably safe to describe the Perseverance production as a love letter to the author.
"I'm kind of a geek about Steinbeck," said Rotch. "I tried to do a production that he would love."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM