(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article was published last month in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, another Lee Enterprises publication. Carl Overly Jr., who is featured in the article, is a native of Maysville and graduated from Mason County High School and Eastern Kentucky University. He first experience in the theater was with the Maysville Players. He is the son of Carl and Beverly Overly of Maysville and the grandson of Hilda Horde.)
You find yourself onstage. But you don’t know your lines. You don’t know what character you’re playing. Honestly? You don’t even know the name of the play.
Probably many people have this anxiety dream. But it so affects people involved in the theater that it’s known as “the actor’s nightmare.”
Carl Overly Jr., a familiar and distinctive figure on St. Louis stages, had that dream one night a couple of years ago.
Even in his sleep, he felt “kind of nervous,” the actor recalls. “I didn’t know my lines! But then I looked over and saw Adam Flores.
“Adam turned to me and asked, ‘Are you ready, Lennie?’
“I said, ‘I’m ready, George.’”
The die, and the play, were cast.
This week the Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble opens “Of Mice and Men,” a whole production that dates back to that dream. That day, Overly was working on a project with three other popular St. Louis theater artists: Flores, Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts. Schwetye and Tibbetts head SATE.
Of course he told them all about it. Once they stopped laughing, they started making plans.
First published in 1937, “Of Mice and Men” has long been one of the most-taught and most-banned books in the country. It occupies a place at the heart of John Steinbeck’s “California novels,” along with “Tortilla Flat,” “East of Eden” and, of course, “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“The Grapes of Wrath” won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1939; Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.
These and other Steinbeck books are set in California’s fertile central valley, where the writer grew up. The son of a prosperous, cultured family in Salinas, he spent some teenage summers working on local ranches.
Unlike young Steinbeck, most of the laborers weren’t looking forward to golden student days at Stanford University. They were migrant farm workers, doing backbreaking tasks for meager pay on somebody else’s land.
The characters in “Of Mice and Men” are migrant workers like those. Two of them, George and Lennie, are devoted friends who hope they will do better at this ranch than they have at past jobs. They dream of earning enough money to buy a little farm of their own.
George, small and sharp, keeps an eye on Lennie, a big, sensitive, slow-witted man who doesn’t know his own strength. It’s gotten him into trouble in the past, but George has always managed to protect him.
Look at Flores and Overly. They do seem perfect for their roles. Take a second look. Flores is Latino; Overly is African-American.
And that, says director Jacqueline Thompson, is the point of this production. “We wanted to reimagine this classic story, holding onto its integrity,” she says. “I think we’ve made some bold choices. It’s a different journey.”
Maybe the boldest choice of all? The ethnically and racially diverse makeup of the ensemble, who mostly play itinerant ranch hands.
That’s not the way Steinbeck portrayed them. But, Thompson says, that’s precisely what makes the play matter now.
Flores — who grew up in Jefferson City but spent a few months in Salinas working with Cornerstone, the influential theater company that develops migrant workers’ personal stories into dramatic pieces — agrees with her wholeheartedly.
Migrant workers have long been a diverse group, Flores says. In fact, there’s a hidden history of Latinas disguising themselves as men to work in California farm fields; men earned more than women did.
Today, he adds, there’s perhaps less diversity than in the past, with California reporting that 92 percent of farm workers are Latinx, a gender-neutral term that refers to both Latino men and Latina women.
Today’s migrant workers “are doing the exact same jobs as Steinbeck’s characters,” says Flores, an assistant professor of theater at Fontbonne University. Thompson is an assistant professor of acting and directing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “They speak a different language; they look different.
“But Carl and I look a lot more like today’s workers” than the stars who played Lennie and George on Broadway, or in the three movies based on the book. “And the nobility and necessity of field work hasn’t changed since Steinbeck’s day.
“But America’s view of that work surely has. Right now, field workers are demonized and threatened. [But] it would not be hard to imagine that Steinbeck would once again turn his gaze toward those fighting for dignity. Steinbeck had an ear and a heart for those Americans.”
Keeping all that in mind, the SATE collaborators reimagined “Of Mice and Men” to encompass both Steinbeck’s Depression-era story and the migrant workers of 2017.
This new interpretation, Thompson acknowledges, will turn some people off. But others, she believes, will appreciate the way that this “Of Mice and Men” uses the past as a way to illuminate the present, and vice versa.
Think of it as a conversation between America then and America now. That approach has worked pretty well for a little show called “Hamilton.”