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'Mice and Men' characters come alive at Playhouse

For director Amanda Durst, the 1992 movie adaptation of John Steinbeck's timeless book "Of Mice and Men" didn't measure up either to the novel or the play. So she went into the Duluth Playhouse's production, her first directing gig there, looking...

For director Amanda Durst, the 1992 movie adaptation of John Steinbeck's timeless book "Of Mice and Men" didn't measure up either to the novel or the play. So she went into the Duluth Playhouse's production, her first directing gig there, looking for more.

"It was important to me to pull off really fully-fleshed characters," she said during a break in rehearsal Tuesday.

She was particularly unhappy with John Malkovich's portrayal of Lennie, who with his friend and fellow drifter George is the main character in the play.

"He's not stupid," Durst said. "Lennie must be a tragic character. You want people to care about Lennie."

She said the script shows moments of understanding, and nothing in the novel or script shows the kind of retardation depicted in the movie. And she said Lennie must have more depth than a simple stereotype to sustain his friendship with George, which is the one thing that sets the two apart from a cast of deeply lonely characters.

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The play and novel center on the trials of George and Lennie, who travel from job to job working to save enough money to buy a place of their own. But at this job, things go tragically wrong when Lennie accidentally kills a woman.

Ryan Gallagher, who is playing the part of Lennie, agrees that the character's mental state can be taken too far.

"Basically, I'm approaching him like a 10 or a 12-year-old trapped in a man's body," Gallagher said. He also said he didn't find any sense of handicap in either the script or the book and noted that Steinbeck once said in an interview that Lennie was somebody taken out of the oven too early.

Gallagher said what's intriguing about Lenny is the sense of childlike innocence about him. While most characters in plays have an arc, changing from the beginning of the play to the end, George isn't like that.

"He doesn't change. He's always just big, devoted to George and likes to touch soft things," Gallagher said.

Even at the end of the play, he just forgets about the tragic events that just happened.

{IMG2}Jason Cooper, a University of Minnesota-Duluth grad who is playing George, has also had an epiphany about his character. He said at first he approached the character as too gruff and irritated -- much the way Gary Sinise portrayed George in that movie version. But he realized, "no one would like George," and now he laughs a lot more, which he says is more faithful to the novel, which he, like many, read in high school and college.

"It came out of just reading the script and doing what felt right," he said.

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Durst said the cohesive, almost-all-male cast (Amanda Balager, who plays Curly's wife, is the play's only female character) has been full of surprises.

"I have had very clear ideas about who and what these characters are," she said. But during auditions, some of the actors vying for farmhand spots had really interesting ideas and had some influence.

And that's continued as production has gone on.

"They surprise me," Durst said of the cast. "They bring new stuff in and they surprise me in a good way every night."

With some male bonding going on -- "not even a little, a lot of it," Durst said -- things can get a little boisterous onstage, but Durst said there's also been a remarkable focus. They cast was "off book" with lines memorized about a week into rehearsals, and it's clear people had been getting together and working outside of rehearsal. She has even shown up early and found people running sections of the play.

All the more remarkable is that the cast has a wide range of experience, and most of them didn't know each other beforehand.

"We have a lot of fun," Cooper said. "The cast is hilarious. I love it."

"Of Mice and Men" will be staged at the Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St., Friday through Sunday, March 7-9, and Wednesday through Sunday, March 12-16. Shows Wednesday through Saturday begin at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinee shows are at 2 p.m. For reservations, call 733-7555.

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