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TIP Opens Its 2011-12 Season with “Of Mice and Men”

Ryan Brock (left) and Jesse R. Gephart star as George and Lennie

Ryan Brock (left) and Jesse R. Gephart star as George and Lennie in "Of Mice and Men"

Theatre in the Park will open its 2011-12 season with Of Mice and Men by 1962 Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck (1902-68) on Aug. 19-21 and 25-28 and Sept. 2-4 in its Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre in west Raleigh, NC. Steinbeck originally wrote this critically acclaimed 1937 novella as a play.

“I think, like most people, I was first introduced to this story in high school,” recalls TIP guest director Jesse R. Gephart. “I read the play first; [and] for a long while, I thought the play came first, but that’s not the case. Steinbeck wrote the book in 1937, in a play format — [with] three parts consisting of two chapters each. The play is constructed the same: three acts, each act has two scenes.”

And, Gephart notes, “There will be gunfire — and a live dog — in this show! …

“Years ago,” he adds, “I’d seen the [1992 Gary] Sinise/[John] Malkovich film, as well as the [1939 ] [Burgess] Meredith/[Lon] Chaney[, Jr.] film adaptations, but I’ve never seen a stage production of the show.”

Gephart admits that he loves a good tragedy. “This story is so engaging while remaining so simple,” he explains. “It’s about connection, about love, about care. The connection that George and Lennie have is one many people identify with; and this story is one that a lot of people have carried with them for years. It’s a story that hasn’t been told in the Triangle in the last decade or so, and I felt like it was a great time to bring it back to the surface.”

He adds, “My directing the show was not initially in the game plan. When I brought the show to [Theatre in the Park executive and artistic director] David Wood, I proposed it as a co-production to do during some dark time in their summer months. Wood took the show and put it on to open their season, and he asked me to direct it.”

“Because I had already planned on playing Lennie,” Gephart says, “I asked my long-time friend and creator-in-crime Maggie Rasnick to assistant direct, knowing she would be able to have a strong ability to work scenes I am directly involved in.”

When the curtain rises on Of Mice and Men, Jesse Gephart says, “George (Ryan Brock) and Lennie (Jesse Gephart) are migrant ranch workers, moving from job to job, attempting to pursue the American Dream by owning their own bit of land and running their own farm. At the story’s start, the two men have just arrived at a small ranch outside Soledad, California, after having abruptly departing their last job in Weed, California due to some trouble. At this ranch outside Soledad, they meet Candy (John Honeycutt), a swamper with only one hand, who eventually becomes friends with the two men and integrates himself into the dream of that little piece of land.

“The ranch’s superintendent is the Boss (Randy Jordan), whose son Curley (Samuel Whisnant) is a short-tempered, scrappy fellow, who instantly is on the attack with Lennie. Curley’s Wife (Page Purgar) has a wandering eye, always looking for ‘someone to talk to’ and ends up causing big problems for George and Lennie.,” says Gephart.

He adds, “Throughout the story, we meet other ranch hands, such as Carlson (Matt Schedler), Whit (Jordan Westra), and the jerkline skinner, Slim (Of Mice and Men master carpenter Jeffrey Nugent). There is also Crooks (John Rogers Harris), the African-American ranch hand, whose room off the barn becomes a place for elevated dreaming and harsher realities.

“The drama of this story is of friendship pushed to its most extreme limits,” Gephart says, “and of the actions one will take in order to protect someone who cannot protect himself.”

In addition to director Jesse Gephart, the Theatre in the Park creative team for Of Mice and Men includes assistant director Maggie Rasnick, technical director, set and lighting designer, and properties manager Stephen J. Larson; costume designer LeGrande Smith; sound designer Will Mikes; and stage manager Mike McGee. The show will also feature original music by Scott Parks.

Director Jesse Gephart says, “The set has a permanent riverbank fixture on one side, with a broken tree, tall grass, the edge of the river, and a fire pit. On the opposite side of the stage is a massive, aged barn wall that stretches up into the grid, with two large, working barn doors. And from these doors come two large units that make up the bunkhouse, the unit setting up Crooks’ house, and the unit for the barn stall where Curley’s Wife and Lennie recount their own personal, yet similar dreams.

“The units are fully realized and wonderfully help set the scene,” claims Gephart. “[Scenic designer] Steve [Larson] has really worked hard to create as real a setting as possible, keeping it rooted in the time, and appropriate for our needs.”

Gephart adds, “The lighting is very rich and lovely. The barn wall is used as a filter, casting slatted shafts of light across the floor; and a cyclorama stretches across the back of the stage. [Lighting designer] Steve [Larson] has created a beautiful atmosphere….

“The costumes are period — early-mid 1930s, appropriate wear for the ranch,” Gephart says. “Most of the men are all pretty dirty — ranch workers generally are. The Boss, Curley, and Curley’s Wife, living in the house, and not necessarily workers, are a bit more refined.

He adds, “There is a lot of denim in this show, but [costume designer] LeGrande [Smith] and [assistant costume designer] Marilyn [Gormon] have done a great job of making each character separate and unique. They spent hours distressing and dirtying clothes, hats, and boots.”

Director Jesse Gephart says, “Knowing you are acting in, or directing, a tragedy/drama, is instantly a problem. It’s easy to fall into a rut where you can telegraph the ending. So, [a major challenge in staging Of Mice and Men is] fighting that impulse to play the ending, to allow and encourage your actors to remain in the moment — where things really aren’t that bad — and allow the journey taking place to really affect the actors, which will in turn, [will] affect the audience more strongly.

“It’s also been a major challenge directing a show that I’m also acting in,” Gephart confesses. “It’s the first time I’ve done anything like that, and thankfully I’ve had my long-time friend Maggie Rasnick at my side as my assistant director, helping mold and shape the show.

“Regardless of what is happening in our economy,” Gephart adds, “our political landscape, or our personal lives, this is a story everyone should revisit, or experience for the first time. Is it sad? Sure. But beyond the sadness is an unavoidable beauty — an exquisiteness that you cannot escape. It’s worth every minute and something you’ll carry with you long past exiting the theatre.”

Theatre in the Park presents OF MICE AND MEN at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 19 and 20, 3 p.m. Aug. 21, 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25-27, 3 p.m. Aug. 28, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 2 and 3, and 3 p.m. Sept. 4 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.

TICKETS: $22 ($16 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel).

BOX OFFICE: http://www.etix.com/.

SHOW: http://theatreinthepark.com/of_mice_and_men.html.

PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/directions_and_parking.html.

OTHER LINKS:

The Novella: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Of_Mice_and_Men (Wikipedia).

The Novelist/Playwright: http://www.steinbeck.org/ (National Steinbeck Center), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Steinbeck (Wikipedia), and http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1962/steinbeck-speech.html (Nobel Prize in Literature).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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