KEARNEY — Justin Wooten speaks softly with a strong Southern accent.
“I was born in Florida and spent the first 20 years of my life in Coleman, Ala.,” he said during an interview at the Hub office. “From there I lived in Birmingham and Montgomery. I consider Montgomery my home.”
And at 6 feet, 8 inches, Wooten looks and sounds like the part of Lennie in Crane River Theater’s production, “Of Mice and Men.”
When casting the show, director Steve Barth looked for someone to take the part who could fill in the details of the character created by John Steinbeck in his novel written in 1937.
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“We knew that we needed someone who was big and had a presence,” Barth said. “You have to believe that this is a guy who doesn’t know his own strength. We have to believe that he could hurt someone very easily just because of his brute strength. The character that Steinbeck wrote calls for that.”
Barth knew the actor would be perfect for the role.
“As soon as he read, I called home and said, ‘We’ve got our guy,’” Barth said. “He understands this character and he relates to it so beautifully.”
Crane River Theater presents “Of Mice and Men” as part of its Destination Series at 7 p.m. Sept. 19-21 and 2 p.m. Sept. 22 at Mountain Rose Ranch, 2446 Cottonmill Ave. Tickets are $20.
“This will be a full production at Mountain Rose Ranch,” Wooten said. “As far as the set design, it’s gorgeous. The vision that Steve has is truly remarkable because the story is still relevant today. I’m very proud of what we’re doing.”
The story follows two migrant ranch workers, Lennie Smalls and George Milton, and their dream of earning enough money to buy their own farm.
Tad Cameron plays the part of George.
“We’re staging it in a big ol’ barn,” he said. “When I first heard ‘barn’ I imagined four pens and some hay. No, this barn is massive. In most theaters we play on boards or planks on stage but we’ve got this huge, soft dirt floor that we’re going to be tromping around on. I think it will add a lot, jumping off these big platforms that Steve is building himself.”
Cameron sees a direct connection to the land/dirt where George and Lennie work.
“Actually being down in a pile of dirt while I’m pretending to splash water on my face adds a lot to the story,” he said.
Barth programmed the drama into the season because of the unforgettable nature of the story.
“‘Of Mice and Men’ is a classic for so many people just because of the literary aspect,” he said. “High schools across Nebraska are reading the story. It was written in 1937 and yet people are still reading it and still studying it and watching it produced in theater settings today. It just shows how universal, and how relevant, all the themes are in the story.”
As the director, Barth tries to tease out those themes and present them in a way that resonates with the audience.
“There are beautiful images we are presenting at the Mountain Rose Ranch that allow those themes to come to life,” Barth added. “We have such a beautiful relationship with Lennie and George, and so companionship is a major theme we want to come out. So how can all the text — and the subtext — relay that sense of companionship that these two gentlemen share. And there’s also a sense of loneliness.”
Set in the Great Depression, the story explores the lives of people who must travel to find work.
“Oft times it was lonely,” Barth said. “It was very rare for people to travel together. For Lennie and George to travel together from job to job is unique. So finding that theme of loneliness in the text and the subtext helps create the conflict in the show.”
Another sense of conflict comes when George and Lennie must wager their friendship against their dream to buy a farm.
“These two guys are working day to day to make their dream, which is just to buy their own farm,” Barth said. “The show has very simple themes. Everybody can relate to that, they can conspire to that. I liken it to buying a lottery ticket. You just hope one day you’ll win the lottery. The chances are slim but we just keep buying that Powerball ticket in the hopes that we might win it one day.”
A sense of hope drives the audience as well as the characters in “Of Mice and Men.”
Wooten sees the character of Lennie as someone with limited intellect.
“When you start reading about him it’s easy to think that he might be disabled and stuff, but he’s really just simple, kind of a kid,” he said. “He’s around 31 years old and he don’t have nobody else. George is kinda his caretaker. I wanted to do the role justice. From the moment I thought I was going to do this role back in March, Steve just kept saying, ‘Let the text drive what you’re saying.’ And the way Steinbeck wrote this, Lennie’s vernacular is really very small. He repeats a lot of what he hears from George.”
Wooten looks for a sense of balance between the child-like mannerisms of his character and how to propel the story.
“I don’t want to just say these lines, but I want to create a picture that comes through the play,” he said.