Wits’ End Theatre brings American classic to Potter Auditorium stage

SUBMITTED PHOTO Brian Bedard as Lennie, at left, and Nathaniel Chase as George rehearse Wits' End Theatre's production of "Of Mice and Men."
By : 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
Chatfield News

“‘Of Mice and Men’ is the story of several days in the lives of Lennie Small and George Milton, two itinerant farm workers moving from job to job in California during the Great Depression. Lennie is a giant of a man with the mind of a child. George is a savvy guy who promised Lennie’s aunt he’d take care of him,” shared Joe Chase, Chatfield Wits’ End Theatre (WET) thespian and director.

Chase explained that the WET winter production features the stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel. WET’s production of “Of Mice and Men” is set for the Potter Auditorium stage on Friday, March 22, 23, 29 and 30 at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m., and refreshments will be available for purchase. Tickets are available at the door or online at www.witsendtheatre.org.

 Chase continued to describe the storyline, as he said, “In their travels, these dissimilar men have formed a unique friendship that makes them different from the solitary ranch hands who’ve ‘got no family’ and ‘don’t belong no place.’ As Lennie describes it to George: ‘I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you.’ They have only the clothes on their backs and their bed rolls, but they have allowed themselves a modest dream of a better future — getting a stake together to buy a place of their own where they can work for themselves, have a little house with a warm stove in the winter, and rabbits that Lennie can tend and pet. When they join forces with Candy, an old bunkhouse hand they meet at their latest job, suddenly their dream is almost within reach.”

Chase explained that “Of Mice and Men” is a drama he’s long thought would do well on the Potter Auditorium stage at the Chatfield Center for the Arts (CCA), and now is the time to bring the drama to life to illustrate how life was nearly a century ago during the Great Depression.

“I guess the idea of doing ‘Of Mice and Men’ this year in Chatfield started with me late last summer,” he said. “I’ve loved the story since I read it in junior high school in Chatfield. It’s one of those classic tales that opens a young person’s eyes to the magnificence of a well-told story. I’ve always wanted to do the play, but until now, the opportunity just never came along.”

Chase said “Of Mice and Men” isn’t the kind of show that Wits’ End does in the summer, when the theater group tries to appeal to whole families with a great musical.

“But last year, Wits’ End Theatre did its first big winter production, and we wanted to come back with another winter-early spring show this year,” he added. “It occurred to me that ‘Of Mice and Men’ would be a great show for that second production slot, and a change of pace for our theatre company, so I pitched the idea of ‘Of Mice and Men’ to the Wits’ End board, and my fellow board members were kind enough to approve and support it. It’s sort of a dream come true for me.”

Chase noted that the cast and crew are comprised of veteran WET actors and stage workers. “We’ve assembled a talented, hardworking cast from Chatfield, Rochester and, of course, Pilot Mound. Team Manahan — Nick, Kelly and Hugh — have built us a great set,” he said. “Pastor Debra Collum has costumed our cast in accurate Depression-era clothing, and Joan Verdegan is putting together a musical soundtrack that will evoke those times.”

Chase acknowledged that WET is typically more likely to produce musicals or plays that don’t address the hardships of life. “‘Of Mice and Men’ is a step in a new direction for Wits’ End. This is a serious play about serious themes — though it has its humorous moments, too,” he said. “The play says a great deal about our common humanity, our dreams, our need for friendship and someone to look out for us. It’s a strong, emotional story that has been provoking thought and discussion for eight decades. No one loves big American musicals more than me. But live theater tells all kinds of important stories without anyone breaking into song — ‘Of Mice and Men’ is one of the best and most powerful dramas ever brought to any stage anywhere.”

He observed that there is a companionship in presenting “Of Mice and Men” on the Potter Auditorium stage.

“John Steinbeck’s novel, ‘Of Mice and Men,’ was published in February 1937 at the height of the Great Depression — eight months after the doors of what was then called ‘Chatfield High School Auditorium’ and that we now call ‘Potter Auditorium’ were first opened in Chatfield — and it was an immediate bestseller.”

The story and the Potter stage on which WET will bring the story to life are both 82 years old. And both are products of those hard times.

“The book was hailed as a ‘simple but superb’ story,” Chase continued. “By November of that year, a play based on the book was on Broadway. It became a motion picture in 1939, starring Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney, Jr., as Lennie. In the decades since then, the book has been part of the curriculum in countless high schools across America, the movie has been remade for the screen and TV, and the play has returned to Broadway as recently as 2014 — when James Franco played George and Chris O’Dowd played Lennie.”

Chase remarked, “‘Of Mice and Men’ and Steinbeck’s most famous book, ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ are the classic depictions of regular people struggling to survive during the Depression in America. And Potter Auditorium was built as part of a New Deal public works initiative. This production brings together two inspiring products — a great book and a great building — from one of the toughest times our country has ever faced. Potter Auditorium and ‘Of Mice and Men’ are both monuments to American creativity and resilience when the chips were down.”

Chase related that the theater company aspires to make its productions accessible to all. “Wits’ End Theatre’s mission is to entertain our audiences with great shows, but we also aspire to educate with the productions we bring to the Potter stage,” he said. “We see ‘Of Mice and Men’ as a great opportunity to educate, so for students, age 13 to 18, and for all educators, any seat in the house is just $5. For everyone else, reserved seat tickets are only $15, and that’s a bargain, too. We think ‘Of Mice and Men’ is a play that will show young people just how moving live theatre can be, and that it doesn’t happen only in Minneapolis, Chicago or New York. Really compelling theatre can be produced in small towns, too.”

Chase concluded that this production is not appropriate for “little theatre-goers,” but does urge parents to bring their teens to see the show. “We’d love to see Potter filled with young people for these performances,” he said.