Saturday, February 1, 2014

Of Mice And Men

It dawned on me the other day that 40 years ago this month, I was cast as "Lennie" in the University of Virginia's production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men. I have always loved theater. I was very active in the drama program at my high school in New Jersey, much to the dismay of my abusive father, who thought I should have pursued sports instead of appearing in some "sissy play." (I was never quite able to convey to him that for every thirty girls in the drama department, there were only three or four guys, but that was not why I favored drama over basketball. It was, however, an argument he perhaps would have understood.)

The first show I tried out for in high school was The Mouse That Roared and I actually scored a speaking part. I was forced by my father to drop out of the show so that I could instead try out for the baseball team. (It was too bad, too, because the woman whom I would one day marry was also cast in the show. I hadn't met her yet, and it would be another year before I did.) Eventually my father realized, much to his personal dismay and embarrassment, that I have absolutely no talent for sports but was actually pretty good at the theater thing. He finally came to the last show I did in high school, The Fantasticks, which got rave reviews and was actually extended to run another week because of demand from the community for tickets. He never actually gave me any praise for my performance, but grudgingly admitted that he enjoyed the show. (In all fairness, you have to be a real stone not to enjoy yourself at even a half-decent performance of The Fantasticks, and for a bunch of high school kids, our production was pretty great.)

But even though I won the school's drama scholarship, there was never any consideration by my family of my going off to college to major in anything other than pre-law. I could pick history, government or political science, but that was the extent of my choice.  Which, looking back on things, was ridiculous since I received absolutely no financial assistance from my family whatsoever. The University of Virginia offered me a combination of scholarships and work-study, which is how I was able to get myself to college. It was a fallback after the US Naval Academy discovered that I suffered from Crohn's Disease at my pre-admission physical exam and declared that I was unfit for service. But it wasn't like my family could pull the rug out from under my education, so I think it was just the habit of submitting to their intimidation that kept me from majoring in whatever I wanted. At least at first.

I had been auditioning for shows with the Virginia Players and taking elective courses in the Drama Department since my first year at U.Va. At that time, their shows were performed in a tiny shoebox of a theater in a building named Minor Hall. I stood 6'5" tall and on that stage I was, quite literally, hitting my head on the stage lights. I was never cast in anything because I never looked quite right up there. But in 1974, thanks to a grant from Dr. David Culbreth in honor of his mother, Sarah, the Drama Department opened up its new state-of-the-art theater building. It had two theaters, a traditional proscenium stage (the Culbreth Theater) and a large experimental "black box" space (the Helms Theater) which had flexible seating that could accommodate anywhere from 160 to 200 people depending on how it was configured. The main stage was not quite ready when the building opened and it was decided that the first play in the building would be done in the Helms Theater and would be Of Mice And Men.

(The Drama Building from when it opened in 1974.)

(The Helms Theater, a big black box with arrangeable seats.)

Now, I was very familiar with Of Mice And Men, and I figured that for once my size would work for me, not against me. So I auditioned for the role of Lennie, the mentally handicapped but physically powerful migrant worker and friend of George. I was called back. Then, instead of a cast list being posted, there was a second call back.  There are nine male roles. The director called back ten men, including me...and one other large man. The other guy was a graduate student in Drama, a Master of Fine Arts candidate, and had just come off of playing lead after lead after lead at Minor Hall. I didn't have a prayer.

So when the cast list was finally posted the day after the second call back, it took a while for me to believe that it was actually my name that I was seeing.

(Me, as Lennie, age 20. I think I had just accidentally crushed yet another mouse.)

The show was very well-received. We performed to a sold-out run, and I don't think it was entirely due to the new theater space. I went on to take the role one more time at a theater in San Francisco, but of all the things I've done in the theater, this performance is the one of which I am most proud. I dropped pre-law and added a major in Drama to the History major I had just about completed, stayed a fifth year at U.Va. to complete it, and went on to work steadily as an actor until that Crohn's Disease I mentioned up above became so bad that there was no way I could continue. I was forced by illness to reconsider my career and ultimately went with my second love, books and reading, and became a librarian. But that, as they say, is a story for another time. For right now, though, I'm feeling especially nostalgic this month for those days I was able to spend on the stage. I still can't quite get my mind around the fact that forty years have passed. I'm still lucky enough to have friends from that same production. Thanks to all of you.

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