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“Of Mice and Men”: Putting Autism Into the Equation

Michael Paul Levin

Several years ago, Artistic Director Richard Cook saw a production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in Spain. It gave him new insight into Lennie, the big man-child whom migrant worker George takes under his wings, and ultimately led to the recasting of Michael Paul Levin as George in Park Square Theatre’s version of Of Mice and Men that has been performed intermittently since 1998.

Artistic Director Richard Cook

According to Richard, “Lennie in the Spanish production was clearly high on the autism spectrum. The actor portrayed the character as always in motion, swaying and shifting back and forth. He physicalized the role in such a big way as to make it obvious to us watching the show why George needed to protect Lennie.

When I returned from Spain, I wanted to revisit the show and do a fresh production. I reopened casting and re-auditioned all the roles. Michael had landed on my short list from the audition process. When I spent time reading with and talking to him, I knew he had the capacity to do great dramatic work. He was also raising a child with autism so living with a loved one who needs special attention–just like George with Lennie. I wondered if Michael would be interested in mining that territory and willing to invest in that point of view as a great way to explore why that relationship exists. Michael was brave and generous to say yes,”

Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) and George (Michael Paul Levin) camp by the river for the evening
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

What we witness on stage with each performance, as a result, is a deeply personal and honest portrayal of George that makes the poignant dynamic between George and Lennie that much more potent.

Michael reflected, “Richard wasn’t a director trying to shoehorn his own impressions into the play. It made a lot of sense going back to read the source and seeing how close it hit home. How Steinbeck describes Lennie and how he behaves suggests Steinbeck’s trying to describe autism without having the words for it.”

In the play, George refers to Lennie as “a crazy bastard” or “you crazy son-of-a-bitch.” We also learn about Lennie’s preoccupation with soft things and compulsion to repeatedly stroke them, such as his incessant petting of mice and puppies or a woman’s satiny skirt or hair.

George (Michael Paul Levin) demands that Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) hand over a dead mouse
(Photo by Connie Shaver)

Lennie isn’t retarded or stupid,” Michael continued. “Steinbeck uses words like ‘crazy’ to mean that Lennie has idiosyncratic behaviors.”

However, before the 1940s, the concept of autism was indeed associated with mental retardation and, in 1910, with schizophrenia by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who coined the word “autismus.” In 1943, Leo Kanner of the John Hopkins Hospital first used “autism” in its modern sense when he introduced the term “early infantile autism”; in 1944, Hans Asperger of the Vienna University Hospital introduced the term “Asperger’s syndrome.” In 1949, the term “refrigerator mothers” was derived from a false theory that autism was caused by a cold mothering style that resulted in psychological harm to their children. In 1964, Bernard Rimland, the father of an autistic son, provided the first solid arguments of autism as a biological condition and founded the Autism Society of America to counter the Refrigerator Mother Theory.

Lennie (E. J. Subkoviak) and George (Michael Paul Levine) settle into the bunkhouse at the ranch where Candy (Patrick O’Brien) also works
(Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma)

It wasn’t until 1980 when autism was officially differentiated from childhood schizophrenia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Third Edition (DSM-III); 1987 when “autistic disorder” replaced “infantile autism” in the DSM-III-R, which finally provided a checklist for diagnosing autism; 1991 when schools began to identify and serve autistic children in special education; and 1994 when Asperger’s syndrome was added to the DSM-IV. In 2013, the DSM-V replaced all the prior jargon with the more general term of “Autism Spectrum Disorders” (ASD).

“Autism awareness has come so far,” said Michael Paul Levin. In fact, he and his wife, Stacey Dinner-Levin, also had a hand in raising autism awareness in 2007 when Autistic License, Stacey’s autobiographical play about bringing up an autistic child, was produced by Illusion Theater. It starred Michael as their son Geordy. Autistic License was named one of the best plays of 2007 by the Pioneer Press.

“As a parent raising a child with autism, you’re often silenced, overlooked or misrepresented. Stacey’s play was an honest portrayal of what it’s like,” Michael said. “She suggested that I play our son. I did it because I couldn’t think of any other actor who could do it. It was very healing for my family to see what we went through and for friends and relatives to see what our lives were like.”

Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men will certainly tug at your heartstrings, but even more so from knowing how much of himself Michael has personally put into each performance.

 

Sources: projectautism.org/history-of-autism and en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autism

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