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Controversial story coming to UW-WC stage


Dramas at the community theater level are a risk.

“When you’re not at the level of the professional level of theater, dramas are few and far between because, to be quite honest, dramas are hard to sell,” actor Nicholas Callan Haubner said. “People like to go and feel happy and entertained.”

Paul Steinbach and his cast believe they can do that as they get set to tell one of the most controversial stories of the last 100 years.

Steinbach is director and producer for the University of Wisconsin-Washington County’s and Seventh Row Center LLC’s production of “Of Mice and Men,” which goes on stage at 7:30 p.m. Friday and April 22 at UW-WC’s Theatre on the Hill in West Bend.

For Steinbach, he’s wanted to perform this story on stage for almost five years. To him, it’s a nobrainer of a story that needs to be told.

However, getting others to agree with him has been a challenge.

“I really wanted to do this play,” Steinbach said. “I shopped it around to the local groups that I’ve been a part of in the past and nobody expressed great enthusiasm to do it.”

“Of Mice and Men” was written by John Steinbeck and published in 1937. It is the story of two men, George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers moving from place to place in California looking for work during The Great Depression. A few months later, it was adapted to the stage and premieredon Broadway. Two years later, the story made its big-screen debut. Since then, there have been several adaptations.

However, since its release, according to the American Library Association, “Of Mice and Men” is consistently on the organization’s list of the “Most Challenged Books of the 21st century.”

The reason is because of its offensive language, such as the use of the “n” word, racism and violence.

In an effort to get the story told, Steinbach launched Seventh Row Center LLC. It is Steinbach’s first appearance on the UW-WC stage since he was in “Sound of Music” with Musical Masquers in 2012.

“Its language is very raw and we haven’t sanitized our version at all,” Steinbach said. “That’s out of respect to John Steinbeck. I wouldn’t do it any other way.”

In 2001, the story was No. 2 on ALA’s list, behind the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling.

Yet, Steinbach said a poll of American literature teachers once ranked “Of Mice and Men” at No. 4 on a list of the 100 titles in U.S. literature history.

“That says a lot,” he said.

“In a simple way, it touches so many things that we are still dealing with in the U.S. today,” Steinbach said. “Racism, classism, sexism, how we treat individuals with disabilities. I mean, it was decades ahead of its time. Obviously, those issues existed in 1937, they still exist and that’s why the story still resonates.”

Steinbach also said the storyremains important 80 years later because it still represents what is believed to be the American dream.

“The dream of one day having your own little piece of dirt and living on your terms. Not somebody else’s,” Steinbach said.

It is a story that should be appreciated, not frowned upon.

“This story is beautifully written,” Steinbach said. “I’m a writer by day. Steinbeck use literary devices, most notably foreshadowing, in brilliant ways, in ways that I can read this story dozens of times and still find examples of how we weaves the plot so deftly.

“It’s really a pleasure to read every time.”

He believes he has the cast to tell the story as it was meant to be when it was published in 1937.

This cast doesn’t lack experience or talent.

Haubner plays one of the lead characters, Lennie, who is mentally disabled, but physically strong. It is already Haubner’s third production of 2017.

The 28-year-old Milwaukee native portrayed Michael in “33 Variations” at Waukesha Civic Theatre and John in “The Lion in Winter” for the Pride Theatre Company.

Last summer, he played Gaston in the Hartford Players’ production of “Beauty and the Beast.”

He also played Hubert in “King John” and Astrov in “Uncle Vanya” with Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts.

Recently, Haubner was nominated for two Footlights Performing Arts awards — Best Supporting Performance in a Play with “33 Variations” and Best Leading Performance in a Play as Oscar in “Odd Couple” with SummerStage of Delafield.

Jake Cox, who plays Curley, received a Tommy Award in 2013 for his portrayal of Lumiere in Slinger High School’s “Beauty and the Beast.” The Tommy Award recognizes high school musical theaterperformances.

Melf Gourlie, who plays Candy, has appeared in 17 productions with Mayville’s Marais Players since 2000. Simon McGhee, who plays Whit, was recipient of the Tom Vogelsang Memorial Scholarship for UW-WC communications and theater majors.

They are taking on a controversialstory in a hard-to-sell genre withtheir best.

“It was Paul’s dream to do this, has been for years since I’ve known him,” said Peter Gibeau, who is a UW-WC music professor and presidentof Musical Masquers in WestBend.

Gibeau also has a part in the story, playing Slim.

“I’m on the fine arts committee here and I thought, ‘Well, we’ve had drama before,’” Gibeau said. “We could do this.”

Haubner said he is drawn to dramatic roles.

“As an actor I look for text that has humanity in it that I feel like I want to tell, tell that story,” he said. “I think with the language like you have in this, things that are raw, things that speak truth, tell great stories, lots of drama fulfill that.

“What’s great with ‘Of Mice and Men,’ if you strip everything away from it, it’s really just ... everyone’s looking for their own little piece of happiness, their own American dream.”

“Its language is very raw and we haven’t sanitized our version at all. That’s out of respect to John Steinbeck. I wouldn’t do it any other way.”

— Paul Steinbach

Director, producer and plays George Milton

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