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Posts Tagged Jack Reuler

Patrick O’Brien: Of Candy, Dogs and Men

Patrick O’Brien plays the old ranch worker, Candy, in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at Park Square. Candy has lost his right hand in an accident and fears for the time when he will be deemed useless, like his ancient dog. Recently, I got to ask Patrick about his thoughts about Candy, dogs and Of Mice and Men as well as his actor’s background. Here’s what he had to say:

What goes through your mind as you prepare to play Candy? Oh, not that much, really. I’m not much for a lot of actor exercises and the like. Just check my props and run my lines in my head of couple times. I purposefully don’t hang out in the green room once the show starts, though. I’d rather stay close backstage and listen. I still have nightmares about a certain missed entrance years ago.

Having watched Of Mice and Men as a student matinee usher, I can attest to the fact that it’s one of the most emotionally wrenching plays to watch over and over again. As an actor on the other side of the stage, what is it like for you to do the show repeatedly? And how do you feel by the end of each performance? Well, my character certainly doesn’t have the wrenching experience that George has, but Candy does have his own tragedy. Most of the cast gathers backstage for the final scene and curtain call, and you don’t have to look far to see tears on castmates’ faces.

So the dressing room afterward and the trip back home are often pretty somber. It definitely stays with you.

A scene from Of Mice and Men; Patrick as Candy is seated next to Boo, the pit bull who plays Candy’s dog
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What happens to Candy’s dog is key to the play. Do you or have you own(ed) a dog or another kind of pet?  Yeah, we have a dog, Domino, who happens to be half border collie, so he’ll make a great Candy’s Dog in about three or four years.

And our previous dog, Sal, a smart golden retriever, had some stage time with me in Two Gentlemen of Verona. We had a great bit: My character was setting off on a journey; and as I exited, I would leave behind a shoe and old Sal would bark, grab the shoe in her mouth and come running off after me. Brought the house down every show.

How did you end up becoming an actor? Start from the very beginning! Fifth grade. Being an altar boy. I loved it! The mass was quite a show back then. You had all the trappings of theater: costume, lines, props, blocking, an audience; the priest as the star of the show. And, of course, the almighty reviewer above.

I grew up in Eau Claire, a pretty small town; and there were no children’s or community theater back then, so there weren’t any opportunities for acting outside of the occasional classroom skit or presentation in grade school (for which I would always volunteer). High school offered more opportunities, and I was involved in whatever shows were available. I squeezed in doing a few shows in my early years of college at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, which had a pretty good no-nonsense theater department.  But I wasn’t getting cast all that much, and I certainly wasn’t entertaining the idea of trying to make a go of acting professionally.

I was a small-town boy and had no desire to leave Eau Claire. I kept putting off declaring my major and was considering teaching special education when I got cast in the plum role of Kit Carson in The Time of Your Life, and something clicked. The director, who was my advisor at the time, suggested I go to grad school for acting. But by then, I was tired of school–it took me six years to graduate; I worked my way through–so I finally declared a theater major and, after graduating, just started auditioning in “The Cities.” I met Jack Reuler while doing a show at Theatre in the Round Players, and he started casting me in show after show at the newly established Mixed Blood Theatre. For the first time, it seemed possible to do this full time. I haven’t had an honest job since.

From left to rt.: E.J Subkoviak as Lennie, Michael Paul Levin as George and Patrick O’Brien as Candy in Of Mice and Men
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

Despite Candy’s somber circumstances, he still dares to hope. What do you hope for in your life? Well, by play’s end, Candy’s hopes are pretty much dashed. His future is reduced to one of staving off being “put on the county” for as long as he can.

But I’ve always been a guy with fairly modest hopes. At my age, I find myself bargaining with the universe over how many more trips around the sun I might be able to enjoy. And how many years I’ll still be able to memorize lines. (And there are those nagging revenge fantasies; but this is not the time or place.)

What do you think Of Mice and Men has to say to today’s audiences? The title, Of Mice and Men, is taken from a poem by Robert Burns: “…the best laid schemes o’ mice and men often go awry.” And, as in most of Steinbeck’s works, those plans go awry much for the worse. Steinbeck was no optimist. It was the depths of the great depression, and Steinbeck pulled no punches when writing about the plight of the down and outs of society.

American society is certainly in many ways better off than in the 1930s, but we as a nation still enable too wide a chasm between the haves and the have-nots. But Steinbeck doesn’t just blame “the system” for this disparity. He indicts his down-and-outs and their inhumanity toward each other with their cruel pecking order on the ranch. They’re as guilty as “the system” for their bleak situation. (And interestingly, Robert Burns also originated the phrase “man’s inhumanity to man” in his poem Man was made to mourn: A Dirge.)

A lot of the themes in Of Mice and Men are fleshed out in Steinbeck’s masterpiece (and my #1 favorite novel), The Grapes of Wrath, which he wrote two years after Of Mice and Men.  His politics are more overt and, although I think it’s a stretch to call him a communist, he certainly was advocating a more egalitarian society in which government should take a forceful role in reducing the inequality inherent in capitalism.

Steinbeck’s main goal was to arouse our sense of empathy. He wrote: ”I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” Are there any endings of stories that “rip a reader’s nerves to rags” more than Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath?

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