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Steinbeck classic confronts social issues of Great Depression Era

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Journeyman's "Of Mice and Men"

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Of Mice and Men,” the stage version previewed June 12 and opened June 13 at the Just Off Broadway Theatre in Kansas City, Mo. with an ensemble cast and under the leadership of director Gregory Chafin.

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The popular classic novel by John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men enlightened readers since it’s inception in the 1930 as Steinbeck crated realistic and gritty characters to face the harrows of the Great Depression in the Salinas River Valley of California. His novels which include The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Tortilla Flats and more depict families as well as individuals struggling to survive a harsh reality long before Social Security, medical assistance, and unemployment laws.

Most of Steinbeck’s stories tell similar stories, but the short, Of Mice and Men, captures readers from the first few paragraphs as two drifters, Lennie and George prepare to go to a nearby ranch to work.

“Few stories accurately portray the powerful emotional impact of The Great Depression more than the classic Of Mice and Men,” Chafin said. “Journeyman Theatre Company is proud to be producing this iconic piece of American literature at the Just Off Broadway Theatre to provoke and entice conversations centered around these richly developed characters and the similarities of our current "Great Recession" versus the hardened lessons of history. Journeyman invites the audience to come see the show through June 22.

Two drifters, George (Lucas T. McVey) and his friend Lennie (Kevin Bickwermert), with delusions of living off the "fat of the land," have just arrived at a ranch to work for enough money to buy their own place. According to Chafin’s synopsis, Lennie is a man-child, a little boy in the body of a dangerously powerful man. It is Lennie's obsession with things soft and cuddly that have made George cautious about who the gentle giant, with his brute strength, associates with. His promise to allow Lennie to "tend to the rabbits" on their future land keeps Lennie calm, amidst distractions, as the mentally challenged adult needs constant reassurance.

“Of Mice and Men” deals with gritty issues about right verses wrong, social morals, pie-in-the-sky dreams verses reality of all the characters, mental illness, friendship, loyalty verses duty, kindness verses harshness, and other issues relevant then and now.

The Founding Artistic Director of Journeyman Theatre Company, Gregory Chafin, has taken the reins as director for “Of Mice and Men” pulling together a strong cast. Alongside McVey and Bickwermert, Kenna Hall plays Curley's Wife as the sole female character in the production.

Accompanying the cast is Curley (Mike Ducey), Candy (Rick Holzman), Slim (Jon Engle), Carlson/Boss (Michael Foster), Whit (John Van Winkle) and Crooks (Jeff Blockmam).

The creative team includes: Gregory Chafin, director; Justin Cave, dramaturg; Jamie Lindemann, pops; Kerry Chafin, lighting; Rustin Bolejack, sound.

The stage play differs a lot from the novel with added dialogue and fuller characters throughout. While the plot and story line remain in tact, the most change comes from the fleshing out of the character of Curly’s wife.

In the book, she has almost no lines or character development. The stage play gives her a lot more lines and a stronger presence. Give lots of credit to Kenna Hall for undertaking the difficult character and giving her flashes of depth not seen in the book. She blatantly flirts with the men and shows vulnerability as she discusses her own dreams of Hollywood stardom. Her reality is no more than the pipe dreams of the ranch workers.

Along with Hall, strong performances come from Bickwermert and McVey as well. As the lead characters they lead the audience through the story. Bickwermert is especially convincing as the dim-witted Lennie who longs for tenderness. McVey plays a strongly devoted drifter who cares for Lennie in a time when mental illness had no options for those afflicted.

Other strong performances, though smaller come from Engle, Mike Ducey, and Michael Foster. The entire cast was strong, but the story did not give chances for some actors to show a lot of range. The script causes that more so than weak actors.

“Of Mice and Men,” although written in the 1930s contains relevant topics still important today. The show is definitely a drama and worthy of large crowds. The language is strong so probably early elementary students may not be brought. The show is appropriate for ages 10 and up, though it is depressing at the end.

Don’t miss this literary classic in motion. The show continues at the Just Off Broadway Theatre in Kansas City, Mo. Tickets and more information can be found at Journeyman Theatre’s website: www.journeymantheatre.com.

Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men runs June 12 through the 14 and 19-21 at 7:30 p.m.; June 15 and 22 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at the door or at www.journeymantheatre.com $20 for General Admission and $15 Student/Senior Admission. The Just Off Broadway Theatre is located at 3051 Central Ave. Kansas City, MO, 64108.

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