‘Of Mice and Men’ themes remain relevant today

Daniel Jones and Philip Gajewsky in “Of Mice and Men.”

Before John Steinbeck penned “The Grapes of Wrath,” the 1939 epic detailing Okies and others who had been swept out West when the Dust Bowl met the Great Depression, he had drawn from his own experiences as a transient California laborer in “Of Mice and Men.”

The tale follows two field workers — the quiet, but wise George and his simple-minded friend Lennie — as they move from farm to farm looking for work. The pair have ambitions to own a farm of their own one day, but Lennie’s excessive strength and mental handicap create frequent problems for them both, resulting in the duo losing one job after another and exhausting their savings.

After Lennie accidentally kills a farmer’s wife, George must confront the complications of protecting his friend as the farmer’s lynch mob closes in.

Published in 1937, “Of Mice and Men” was controversial at the time for its use of profanity and vivid depictions of the human suffering surrounding prejudice, mental disabilities, domestic violence and poverty. It was the issue of euthanasia, however, that helped to earn the book a ban from public schools and libraries, presumably due to the emotional state of much of American society at the time.

But the story of Lennie and George, offering bright hues of friendship, compassion and survival that shine through the overall darkness, helped carry the novel over the censors and into the kind of literary significance that today requires many public schoolchildren around the world to read about them.

Mere months after the novel’s release, the story was adapted into a Broadway play, where it was named “Best Play” in 1938 by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle before moving its production to Los Angeles. The following year, Lewis Milestone directed the first of several screen adaptations, a film that received four Oscar nominations.

For Charleston’s Threshold Repertory, “Of Mice and Men” continues to find relevance, particularly in times and places of struggle.

“John Steinbeck said it best: ‘Try to understand men; if you understand each other, you will be kind to each other,’ ” says Threshold executive director Courtney Daniel. “This story (rings) true today on the importance of acceptance and understanding. We chose this piece in hopes of not only educating audiences but inspiring tolerance and compassion.”

Veteran stage and screen actress, producer and director Chris Weatherhead will direct the production, with Daniel Jones and Philip Gajewski starring as Lennie and George, respectively.

“My family is originally from Northern California, where my grandmother grew up herding sheep on one of the ranches there,” says Weatherhead. “I have a great understanding of the culture of that time.”

Threshold Rep has collaborated with Blue Bicycle Books and the Charleston County School District to create the Rep for Reading Book Drive to correspond with the production.

The program aims to promote literacy throughout Charleston County by donating books to children. The drive will be accepting books appropriate for ages 11-17 at Blue Bicycle Books and at Threshold Repertory Theatre. Donate a book and receive a $5 coupon for “Of Mice and Men” and a 10 percent discount for any book at Blue Bicycle Books.

“Of Mice and Men” will run at Threshold Repertory Theatre, 841/2 Society St., until Feb. 13. Performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors, $15 for students and are available at the theater box office or online www.CharlestonTheater.com. Call 843-277-2172 or go to the venue website for additional information.

In another life, Chris Duffy was a fifth-grade teacher dedicated to the idea of imparting knowledge to his young audience through humor.

Now a full-time comedian and writer living in New York City, Duffy continues to educate his audience by hosting “You’re the Expert,” a radio program on Boston’s WBUR station that features three comedians trying to understand what a guest scientist does at his or her job.

Duffy is now taking the show on the road, picking an expert from each city he visits to join him on stage for a hilarious discussion of science and academia in general.

For his Charleston show, Duffy will be joined by Dr. Phil Manning, prominent paleontologist and College of Charleston and University of Manchester professor.

“Darwin Week” will run at Theatre 99, 280 Meeting St. Thursday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 and are available at the box office or online at www.Theatre99.com.

Seating is general admission, so arriving 30 minutes prior to show time is recommended. Call 843-853-6687 or go to the venue website for additional information.