OF MICE AND MEN
Theatre Calgary and CanStage, Toronto
Opens September 12
Max Bell Theatre (Epcor Centre)
Since replacing Ian Prinsloo as Theatre Calgarys artistic director in 2005, Dennis Garnhum has been playing catch-up, learning the ropes of Calgarys largest theatre company and preparing a season. With John Steinbecks Of Mice and Men, a stage adaptation created in 1937 by Steinbeck himself, Garnhum is opening his season with a work that provides familiar ground not only for its audiences, most of whom are likely familiar with one of the greatest classics in modern American literature, but also for the plays director himself.
A co-production between Theatre Calgary and Torontos CanStage, this most recent staging represents the third time Garnhum has directed Of Mice and Men, first in a co-production between Edmontons Citadel Theatre and the Manitoba Theatre Centre and later for Halifaxs Neptune Theatre. More than simple familiarity, Garnhum has at least one other reason for selecting the play for his direction of the Citadel/Manitoba co-production, Garnhum took home Elizabeth Sterling Haynes awards for direction and production.
"That gives me a bit of confidence, yes," says Garnhum of his previous success with the play. "Ive seen how this play affects people. It touches the heart, but it also surprises you with this joy and silliness at times."
"Of Mice and Men is very much in the tradition of the kind of plays we do at Theatre Calgary," he adds. "Its one of my favourite plays Ive ever done, a new look at an old classic."
Certainly, Theatre Calgary has traditionally provided restagings of familiar plays examples include last seasons production of George Bernard Shaws Saint Joan and the companys perennial favourite, A Christmas Carol. By emphasizing co-productions (half of the seasons shows), Garnhum hopes to increase Theatre Calgarys national profile, as well as distribute the productions cost. But despite Garnhums personal history with the play (at the conclusion of this most recent run, his productions will have opened in five Canadian cities), he maintains that its continuing production, in Calgary and elsewhere, represents a unique experience in every staging.
"The great thing is that, at times, it does make you see things in a different light," he says. "Im kind of rediscovering it. And we have a new cast, most of whom have no history with it (Ashley Wright has performed in all three incarnations). Theyve been able to question me and it allows me to clarify or confirm things Ive always believed about the play.
"My understanding of the play is the same, so Im not trying to reinterpret my reinterpretation. Im trying to clarify and further my thinking."
Of course, Of Mice and Men is best known to most audiences as a novel, the story of two drifter ranch hands, George (Shaun Smyth) and Lenny (Wright), who take up short-term employment at a ranch, and their struggle towards freedom they will never know. A simple-minded but physically imposing man, Lennys dependence on the cynical George is at first glance one of simple dependence. But it is in the complex interplay of their relationship, the provision of protection and companionship that we come to see them as human beings. Like the ranch hands that surround them, they each struggle to survive in a country paralyzed by poverty, grasping desperately at one another when faced with a world filled by human beings driven by their own needs.
A deeply human tragedy set during the Depression, the novel has been a staple in American classrooms, and on Canadian bookshelves, since its first publishing in 1937. But, even in the original text, Steinbeck wrote his story in demarcated scenes, designed to fit nearly perfectly into the adaptation he would later create with director George Kaufman.
"I think Of Mice and Men is in its strongest form as a play," says Garnhum. "When youve read the novel, youve had an experience, but nothing beats sitting in the theatre with it. I think people will be surprised as to how this is the best way to receive it."
Regardless of its medium, the enduring power of Steinbecks first great novel is familiar ground for the inaugural show of Garnhums first selected season as Theatre Calgarys artistic director. Even without Garnhums own attachment to the play, the compelling struggle of two social outcasts dreaming of a refuge they will never have remains enduring theatrical fare.
"Through the course of the play, you see the loneliness and sadness of each of the characters, and you see each of them struggle to connect to each other, love someone or hold someone," he says. "To me, thats where a play thats so specific becomes so universal, and thats why 70 years later were still doing this play."