(Host) The credo of Burlington’s On The Verge Theater Company is “bringing theater to students, and literature to life.” The company hopes to inspire high school students by presenting plays to area schools.
VPR’s Neal Charnoff went Backstage with On The Verge’s first production, “Of Mice and Men.”
(Charnoff) John Steinbeck’s depression-era novel tells the story of George and Lennie, two migrant farm workers who travel from ranch to ranch looking for work. Lennie is large and strong, but he has the mind of a child and doesn’t know or understand his own strength. George tries to keep Lennie out of trouble and educate him as best he can.
At the opening of the play, as they walk a dusty road to their next ranch, they sit down to camp for the night. Lennie, played by Tim Kavanagh, insists that George, played by Craig Bailey, tell him once again of the home they will one day make for themselves.
(George) “Okay, someday we’re gonna get the jack together and we’re gonna have a little house, and a couple of acres and a cow and some pigs and-“
(Lennie) “And live off the fat of the land! And have rabbits. Go on George! Tell about what we’re gonna have in the garden. And the rabbits in the cages. Tell about the rain in the winter and about the stove and how thick the cream is on the milk, you can hardly cut it. Tell about that, George!”
(George) “Why don’t you do it yourself? You know all of it!”
(Lennie) “It ain’t the same if I tell it. Go on now. How I get to tend the rabbits.”
(Charnoff) John Steinbeck adapted his novel for the stage, keeping most of the story and dialogue intact. This production is being directed by Joshua Masters of Burlington. Masters says the play’s themes can be summed up in one word.
(Masters) “It’s about loneliness. Everybody in this play is somehow alone and they all deal with it in a different way. They all get through their lives, get through their days with different methods. Everyone is surrounded by people but in their own mind, completely alone. And I think that’s what Steinbeck really experienced during the dustbowl era.”
(Charnoff) Craig Bailey says that “Of Mice and Men” is also about friendship, and the power of dreams.
(Bailey) “You see people in this play who don’t have control over their own lives, essentially. And they dream that they could have control over their own lives, they dream to have their own place. Their biggest dream is that if it rains in the wintertime, they can say, ‘to hell with work.’ Who can’t relate to that?” (Laughs.)
(Charnoff) Director Josh Masters says that the production team made only one change to the story. Crooks, the black stablebuck, is now being played by a woman. Masters says the reason for the change is that the audition by Sheila Collins was so good they felt they had to cast her.
Collins says the gender switch adds another layer of isolation to the characters. She feels the play offers life lessons about discrimination because of disability and because of race.
(Collins) “Just those two themes alone – the way we treat other human beings and how we regard other human beings who may be different from ourselves – I think has a universal resonance that people will be able to relate to.”
(Charnoff) In this scene, Crooks is angry that Lennie has wandered into her room in the barn.
(Crooks) “You got no right to come in my room. This here’s my room. Nobody got any right in here but me.”
(Lennie) “I ain’t doin’ nothin’. Just come in the barn to look at my pup, and I seen your light.”
(Crooks) “Well, I got a right to have a light. You go on and get out of my room. I ain’t wanted in the bunkhouse and you ain’t wanted in my room.”
(Lennie) “Why ain’t you wanted?”
(Crooks) “‘Cause I’m black. They play cards in there. But I can’t play because I’m black. They say I stink. Well, I tell you all of you stink to me.”
(Charnoff) On the Verge Theater Company was created specifically to bring shows based on literature to area high school students. The cast will sit down for discussion with students following the matinee performances. Director Josh Masters says students respond when the curriculum is made accessible to them.
(Masters) “You can really learn any subject through something that you love and for so many people that’s the arts. And that’s really what we want to do, is bring that opportunity to students for them to see theater. And that may make them want to read more. Or it may make them more interested in theater. But either way, it’s a great thing for them to be exposed to.”
(Charnoff) For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff.
“Of Mice and Men” will be presented Friday at Johnson State College and at Champlain College in Burlington September 24 and 25. More information is available online.