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E. J. Subkoviak on Playing Lennie in “Of Mice and Men”

This season, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men returns to Park Square Theatre as a new production on the intimate Andy Boss Thrust Stage with limited performances for general audience from November 9 to December 16. Of Mice and Men will also be seen by school groups during student matinees.

Playing the large but childlike Lennie, who is highly dependent on his fellow migrant worker friend George due to a mental disability, is E. J. Subkoviak. Here is E. J. to tell us more about himself and his role in Of Mice and Men.

When did you first play Lennie, and what was your relationship with Steinbeck’s novel before being cast as Lennie?

Like a lot of people, Of Mice and Men was one of the first books I read in high school, and it was certainly one I never forgot, especially after reading the Cliff’s Notes. I was often asked, based on my height and basic size (exact numbers available through the costume shop), if I had ever played Lennie; and it wasn’t until about eight years ago, when Park Square was in need of a new one, that I got to play him for the first time. This will be my fourth time playing Lennie at this same theater, so I haven’t shrunk much.

George (Michael Paul Levin) and Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) (Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What’s the biggest challenge for you in playing Lennie?

A two-show day, maybe? Honestly, the character is so deeply in my blood now that it feels so easy to bring out. Maybe the first time I did it, it was somewhat of a challenge to figure out, based on each scene, what exactly his mind is doing and how it works in general; but it was all a real labor of love.

Apart from that, playing Lennie, as much as I love it and had been waiting to do it so long, is not much different of an approach than playing anything else as a character actor. The real hard part, at least in the primary story of Of Mice and Men, I’d say, is George, as is the case in most buddy stories where you have a straight man and some manner of an eccentric. The straight man rarely ever gets as much credit or attention (poor Dick Smothers), but he has a hell of a job to do in the whole relationship. And we’re blessed to have my longtime friend Michael Paul Levin in the role as he, as the father of such a child, was able to recognize in the script evidence of autism in Lennie. (The whole notion of autism, and even the word, didn’t exist back in John Steinbeck’s day.) This helped answer some of those questions about his mind and how it works even more and was of great benefit to us all. And, of course, playing out this story as a man with an autistic son is a great emotional challenge for him, and he deserves a medal for it.

What may change in your approach as a result of being on the Boss Thrust rather than the Proscenium stage with this season’s production?

The tricky part will be staging it in the thrust format of the stage with audience on three different sides, but our director, Annie Enneking, is a pro and is smartly considering and playing with these sightlines.

The good news is that the smaller space heightens the intimacy of these scenes, so the personal relationships and the danger and intensity of the piece become more magnified.

It also means less makeup for us. That’s always a relief.

E. J. (center) and other cast members in an early rehearsal in the Boss Rehearsal Hall.
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

What do you want audiences to take away from their experience of seeing Of Mice and Men? Is it different for an adult versus student audience?

I would say the basic idea of empathy, which seems to be fading fast away at this particular time in our history (just read any internet “comment” section). This is a play about mostly outcasts–outcasts trapped in a cold, harsh world and how they survive. Chances are everyone personally identifies with one or more of these outcasts, I think; and that has made this story so relatable for so long. (Even the character of Curley’s wife was fleshed out much more by Steinbeck for the play version, at the request of the play’s producer at the time.)

Achieving that empathy can be more of a challenge for a younger audience, as we’ve discovered in the past. Young people will often laugh at inappropriate times in a tragic story like this, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they find it funny; it’s often just a nervous reaction to a tense situation. (Lennie does this, too.)

How did you end up becoming an actor?

A hastily thought-out deal with the dark lord Lucifer that I’ll always regret.

Actually, my parents insisted I do something other than watch TV one summer when I was about 13, so I joined this acting troupe that traveled from park to park in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and performed fairy tales, melodramas, and other family plays. Somehow, I caught the bug. Along with the mosquitoes in my mouth.

E. J. as Nero Wolfe, with Derek Dirlam as Archie Goodwin in Might as Well Be Dead
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What have been some of your favorite roles, and what other characters do you hope to play someday?

Of course, playing the corpulent crime-fighter Nero Wolfe for Park Square has been a great honor and a fulfillment of my childhood dream of being a detective. It is flattering to be recognized by members of the Nero Wolfe “cult” when I am out and about. (As it has been explained to me: Sherlock Holmes is Star Trek; Nero Wolfe is Doctor Who. I’m very, very cool with that.)

There are a lot of roles I did in college that I’d love to replay as a (bigger) adult: Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Jonathan Brewster (the Boris Karloff role) in Arsenic and Old Lace, the ghost of John Barrymore in I Hate Hamlet and Owen the evil Klansman in The Foreigner, a true comic villain for the times we live in.

Speaking of that, and since I spent all of 2016 not acting but watching the news and getting depressed like so many of us, I have been looking for more projects I could do that deal with civil rights and other issues that are so much on our minds these days. Fortunately, Of Mice and Men qualifies in many ways, and I’m glad to be doing it again now.

Twelve evening performances through December 16. Tickets and more info at http://parksquaretheatre.org/box-office/shows/2017-18/of-mice-and-men/

 

 

 

 

Ting Ting Cheng, Blog Author, Park Square Theatre
Ting Ting Cheng

Ting Ting Cheng joined Park Square Theatre's Front of House staff in 2014. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Los Angeles, she became a Minnesotan after graduating from Carleton College with a B.A. in English Literature. She loves live theatre and has a passion for writing.

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