John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men” has grown far beyond its 187 pages.

by: PHOTO COURTESY CASEY CAMPBELL - PHOTOs COURTESY CASEY CAMPBELL Colin Wood plays Lennie and Peter Schyuler plays George in Bag&Baggage's production of the John Steinbeck classic Of Mice and Men, opening this weekend in Hillsboro.

The story of diminutive George Milton and his mentally challenged, but oversized companion Lennie Small has transformed into a cultural trope deeply embedded in American culture.

The little brainy guy and the big lummox is a combo that shows up in movies, video games and, most notably, Looney Tunes.

Maybe you’ll remember the catchphrase. “I’m gonna love him and pet him and squeeze him and call him George,” or some variation of that has punctuated many classic cartoons.

Well, that’s not what Scott Palmer and the gang at Bag&Baggage are doing with “Of Mice and Men.”

“What we’re really trying to do in the play is to focus on Steinbeck’s laser-like focus on isolation,” said Scott Palmer, Bag&Baggage artistic director.

Colin Wood, who plays Lennie in the Hillsboro production opening Sept. 28, said since nearly every audience member will have read the book, or seen the play elsewhere, it was important to build personalities for Lennie and George that were as human as possible.

“(Audiences) come in with some preconceived notions,” Wood said. “We’re trying to be very honest and authentic.”

“Of Mice and Men” takes place over a terse and disastrous weekend after George and Lennie, arrive at a California ranch seeking employment.

The two are already running from trouble when they arrive. Lennie’s confusing actions led someone to accuse him of attempted rape.

The two fled, but things don’t get much better in their new home.

The audience follows the two men as they wade into a new community of ranchers, rife with its own politics, alliances and fears.

Palmer said it’s the sense of isolation and terror that pervades the work that he’s trying to draw out.

“Every single character in this play is desperate for human connection and contact,” Palmer said.

Palmer is using a couple of tricks onstage to underline that isolation.

The sets should help. Each setting is recreated with a broad expansive landscape behind it while the action itself is focused into tiny, cramped places on the stage.

That forces the actors into the same kind of cramped confines that George and Lennie would have found on a Depression-era ranch.

“The stage is actually very large, but he’s trying to create really small acting spaces to see how people deal with the awkwardness,” Wood said.

Bag&Baggage are using the same script that was used during the 1937 Broadway production of the play, which Steinbeck co-wrote.

“The great thing about ‘Of Mice and Men’ is that Steinbeck wrote the novella because he didn’t know how to write a play,” Palmer said. “He wrote it in a series of four acts — four different locations, four different scenes. So it has a completely natural transition on the stage.”

The trick for the cast is to bring Steinbeck’s story to life without Steinbeck himself.

“The challenge is how to create all the atmosphere and environment that Steinbeck is so good at creating in his prose without any prose to do it,” Palmer said.

Wood said in order to do so, he’s stuck pretty closely to the script, which especially helps with interpreting Lennie.

“He doesn’t react to normal situations in normal fashions,” Wood said. “And physically he’s difficult to portray because he has to be this very hulking presence that simultaneously is dangerous and innocent.”

But digging into the text, Wood said he found support in the words Steinbeck wrote. By implying the speech patterns of the farmhands in his writing, Steinbeck left behind a deep playbook for the actors to follow.

“The text does a great job of setting the period because Steinbeck spent a lot of time with workers during this time period and what he wrote is a very authentic representation of speech patterns at the time,” Wood said.

Still, there’s room for interpretation. And it wouldn’t be Bag&Baggage without some unique flourishes.

“A lot of people play it that George has Lennie on this leash. ‘Come with me, you big, dumb guy.’ We wanted to take a more honest human approach to it,” said Peter Schyuler, who plays George. “In our production, George is less angry at Lennie all the time. His anger is more focused outward.”

The actors have thought about what people who live in cramped quarters do to make space for themselves.

“You have to think of what people kind of keep to themselves so that they feel empowered as individuals,” Wood said. “They don’t let people in and they don’t reach out to other people, even though they’re in very close physical proximity.”

Palmer has another trick up his sleeve. To help the audience get into the mindset of the depths of the Great Depression, he’s turning to Dorothea Lange, who documented the agricultural workers of the Depression in photographs much the same way Steinbeck did in prose.

“The images are so powerful and evocative,” Palmer said. “They are purely timeless.”

Along with Lange’s photography, the actors on stage will sing traditional work songs that tap into old timey themes like sticking it to the banks and shaking off the shackles of the man as they break down the set pieces between scenes.

Timeless and PHOTO COURTESY CASEY CAMPBELL - Lennie, played by Colin Wood, strokes the hair of Curly's wife, played by Cassie Greer, in the emotionally taut Depression-era production.

“Clearly it has echoes of contemporary economic crisis, massive unemployment, all that kind of stuff, there are obviously clear parallels,” Palmer said.

But the production aims to go beyond parallels of theme. Palmer wants to transport the audience. Just as the story of George and Lennie is America’s story, the people that Lange photographed could be anyone working the Tualatin Valley soil today.

“There are pictures that could be your next door neighbor,” Palmer said. “That could be your aunt, that could be a homeless guy in downtown Hillsboro or a modern day farm worker in Cornelius.”

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