“When I was 11 or 12 my mom was watching the movie ‘of Mice and Men’ in the living room,” actor Joe Tapper said. “I was in my bedroom just going about my business and I remember hearing this gasp in the final moment of the movie.”
Fast-forward many years, Tapper will be playing the role of George in John Steinbeck’s iconic piece of American literature and theater, “Of Mice and Men,” opening at Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre.
“I like to believe that even though my mom knew what was going to happen, that it still kind of surprised her,” Tapper said.
That element of storytelling is one of the reasons Tapper loves theater. “When you go to see ‘Romeo and Juliet’ you know what’s going to happen, but you want to believe that it’s not.”
Steinbeck’s novel, published in 1937, centers on two migrant workers constantly on the move looking for work during the Great Depression. George is the brains behind the duo — intelligent, a bit of a dreamer and Lennie’s protector. Lennie is a brute of a man, large in size and strength but mentally disabled.
The stage adaptation, also written by Steinbeck, has been revived on Broadway numerous times. Those productions, coupled with movie and television adaptations, have seen many heavy-hitters bring George and Lennie to life.
“It’s daunting, but it doesn’t scare me,” Tapper said. “I’ve gotten pretty good at not comparing myself to other actors who’ve played the role. You can play a ‘C’ out of a sax or on a guitar and they’re going to sound different. We just have different instruments.”
Both Tapper and his co-star, Mark David Watson, used the words "iconic" and "classic" numerous times while discussing the Steinbeck piece.
“It is masterful writing,” said Watson, who plays George’s sidekick, the slow-witted Lennie. “I’m always pleasantly surprised and moved when I find something that is a classic or I’m rediscovering a classic, to find immediately that there’s a reason it’s a classic.”
“It would be difficult to play Lennie and not have people love him through the whole journey Steinbeck intends,” Watson said. “I follow what Steinbeck has written for Lennie and how he feels about Lennie, and that’s my guide.”
Watson’s challenge is unique in that he must walk a fine line between portraying a mentally disabled man while not making a mockery or parody of the disability.
“The trick is not letting his mental disability overshadow his humanity,” Watson said. “The first step was taking an intuitive leap from the script. Lennie is big. Everything is big: his size, his strength, his heart, his emotions.”
Watson also began doing research. “Lennie is fictional but I was trying to line up some characteristics to make it as realistic as possible.”
“But I think Lennie is as much defined by his friendship with George as by any disability or traits," he continued. "Lennie and George are a team. They rely on each other for so much, they really define each other.”
Tapper agrees. “Their relationship is crucial — if that relationship doesn’t exist, the play doesn’t exist. George’s love for Lennie is so great, he’d do anything to protect him.”
If You Go:
What: "Of Mice and Men"
Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East
When: Oct. 19 - Nov. 3, times vary, matinees available
How much: $25 - $44