News Column

Director seeks to highlight nobility of 'Mice and Men' at Pittsburgh Playhouse

September 4, 2014

By Alice T. Carter, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Sept. 04--Robert A. Miller is best known to Pittsburgh audiences as a director of the dark side.

He generally directs at least one show a year for The Rep, Point Park University's professional theater company.

Over the years, Miller has directed The Rep's productions of "Death of a Salesman," "All My Sons" and "The View From the Bridge," all of which were written by his father, Arthur Miller. He's also helmed world premieres of "The Umbrella Man," "A Child's Guide to Heresy" and Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing."

He's been a distinguished master artist in residence at Point Park University's Conservatory of Performing Arts since 2009.

He's also a Hollywood producer, director and screenwriter who is most widely known as producer of the film "The Crucible," which received two Academy Award nominations and featured Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Joan Allen and Paul Scofield.

The closest he has gotten to lighter fare is Eugene O'Neill's unexpectedly nostalgic and funny "Ah Wilderness!," which he directed for The Rep in 2007.

"Actually, I think I'm a pretty funny guy," Miller says. "I would love to do a Marx Brothers(-style) comedy like 'Room Service,' " he says.

That ambition will have to wait for another season.

Right now, he's in the midst of rehearsals for John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," which will open The Rep's season Sept. 4 in the Rauh Theatre at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland.

"It is a sad story," Miller says. "But these characters are so dear. There's a certain nobility about these people that really moves me."

Published as part of a collection of short stories in 1937 while the Depression was still in full swing, "Of Mice and Men" preceded Steinbeck's best-known work "The Grapes of Wrath," which was published in 1939.

It told the story of two drifters -- the mentally challenged and childlike Lennie and the more savvy George, who does what he can to protect Lennie.

The two men travel through California, picking up work as day laborers or farm workers.

George does the planning, talking and negotiating for the pair. Lennie compensates for his lack of intelligence with his size and strength by literally doing the heavy lifting during the long days of physical labor.

They have a small dream of getting together enough money to buy a small ranch where they could be their own bosses and "live off the fat of the land." But fate has other plans for them.

Soon after its publication, "Of Mice and Men" made its debut on Broadway in a production that credited Steinbeck for the script. That production, directed by George S. Kaufman, ran 207 performances before closing in May 1938.

It had two revivals on Broadway: a 1974 production that starred James Earl Jones as Lennie and Kevin Conway as George and a three-month run earlier this year that starred James Franco and Chris O'Dowd as George and Lennie.

"It's pretty much like the book, but less expository about the landscape," Miller says.

While preparing for rehearsals, Miller watched both of the movies -- the black-and-white 1939 one with Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie and Burgess Meredith as George, as well as the 1992 film with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.

"The Malkovich (version) didn't work for me. So, I looked at the Burgess Meredith/Lon Chaney version, and that really didn't do it either," Miller says.

Neither portrayed the characters the way Miller wants them to be seen.

He hopes to improve on this with his production that features Jarrod DiGiorgi as George and Leandro Cano as Lennie.

"The characters are so beautifully drawn and undeniably broken," Miller says. "I have a certain respect for these people who hold onto their hopes and get up every morning and want more out of their lives. They get what they can and give what they can."

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.


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