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'Of Mice and Men' opens Friday at Corn Stock

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There is a good chance most of us have read the John Steinbeck classic, “Of Mice and Men,” because it has long been on the required reading lists of schools across the country. Now, Corn Stock Theatre is presenting the stage drama of the classic, opening Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Winter Playhouse in Upper Bradley Park.

Directed by Paul Gordon, the drama is perhaps Steinbeck’s best known work, and its themes of racism, loneliness and other forms of prejudice are as relevant today as when the work, written in the form of a play, was published in 1937.

“These are themes that we still recognize as part of the human condition today, no matter what kind of progress we like to think has been made. Racism still exists, we can’t kick loneliness and there is still prejudice again the mentally ill,” Gordon said. “Steinbeck opposed all forms of prejudice and wrote about them to expose them. I think that’s why his works have remained relevant for so long.”

“Of Mice and Men” tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two traveling farmhands who are trying to work enough to build up a stake so they can buy their own farm. George is able-minded and takes care of the mentally ill but hard-working and strong Lennie. After being forced to flee a farm in northern California because of something Lennie did, they find work on a ranch near Soledad and, because of another workers, their dream begins to take shape.

However, as with most tragedies, outside forces work against them and their dreams, as well as those of others they touch, are shattered.

“Loneliness is what brought George and Lennie together to begin with and it is important to this work that the brotherly love-type bond that exists between them is brought out in the acting. It is the most redeeming part, as well as the most tragic part, of this play,” Gordon said.

George is portrayed by Chris Leasor, a veteran performed in central Illinois community theatre. Lennie is portrayed by Chris Peterlin, making his return to the local stage after more than 15 years away.

“I cannot say enough good things about these two and what they bring to these roles. Chris Peterlin keeps saying I took a chance on him by casting him in that role. But to me, I am lucky he decided this was the show he chose to return to the stage,” he said.

“Chris Leasor and I have worked together several times in the last decade or so and he is a pro. The work ethic and talent he brings to the stage every night is phenomenal,” he added. “His character has many levels and Chris delivers every one.”

Gordon noted that the play’s title comes from a line in a Robert Burns poem that says, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

“There are other characters in this play who have their own plans, their own dreams. And because of the actions of the most innocent person there is, none will be realized. This is not an upbeat play. It’s drama. But it is good drama and I couldn’t be happier with my cast,” Gordon said.

Among the other cast is Clark Abraham as Candy. Abraham is another who was active in area community theatre in the past before work took him out of the area. This is his first show at Corn Stock since his return.

Kerri Rae Hinman, who starred in “Other Desert Cities” last year at the Winter Playhouse, portrays Curly’s wife. “Steinbeck didn’t even give the character a name but she ends up the one who causes everything to unravel. Kerri plays it very well.”

Corn Stock veterans Shane Pankey as Whit and Eric Gore as Crooks deliver strong performances as do newcomers Austin Shaw as Slim, Sam Hipp as Curley and Jeramie Glass as Carlson.

Kevin Mileur, known affectionately at Corn Stock as the popcorn man because he operates the summer concession stand almost every year, makes his stage debut as The Boss. Also making her debut is Belle, the dog owned by stage manager Linda Patton. She appears in two scenes.

“Kevin blew me away at the audition. I asked, ‘where have you been?’ But so did the other actors. I got very lucky with every person who auditioned for this show. I didn’t know Austin, Sam or Jeramie before this but I wouldn’t hesitate to work with them again,” Gordon said.

Gordon chose not to build a large set for the show but to stage it in the round, using only minimal set pieces and lighting design by Wayne Carey to set the moods. “I want the focus to be on Steinbeck’s words and on the performances of the actors conveying those words. This is still an important work in American literature and I hope audiences realize that after they see it,” he said.

“Of Mice and Men” plays at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 12, 13, 18, 19 and 20 and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 21.

Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for students. They can be purchased online at www.constocktheatre.com or ordered by calling (309) 676-2196.