CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. -- More than economic hardship, or class alienation, or the ways race and gender separate people, John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" is about friendship, the deep bond between George and his lumbering charge, Lenny.
Getting the bond right is much of the work of the play, said Jeannine Haas, who is directing the Theater Company at Hubbard Hall's production of the play.
"We're finding it as we go," she. "That's what I love as a director. I really like seeing the actors build these relationships."
John Steinbeck's 1937 play -- inspired by his novel -- is set amid the fertile farms of California, the kind of place where two guys ought to be able to "live off the fatta' the lan'," as Lenny says. Now, in its stark depiction of how these hopes and desperations play out in the face of economic catastrophe, it seems relevant to audiences again.
But the human story is overwhelming.
"Steinbeck is really good at the human element," Haas said, "at making people real, with all their warts."
She said she has been relieved to see how well her two leads work together, as she didn't have a chance to see how they would work together before they were cast. Christopher Barlow plays Lenny, an actor with the height and physical presence that the role demands. For George, the producers cast James Udom, who brings an interesting twist to the story because he is African-American.
Udom came to the area by way of San Francisco and had played Edgar in Hubbard Hall's production of "King Lear" earlier this year. He had auditioned for the role of Crooks, an African-American stablehand, but Haas had other ideas.
"I just really like his acting," she said. "This is someone audiences will engage with -- and then I thought he would certainly make us listen in a new way to the text."
Udom said he was stunned and excited at the opportunity.
"This is a great story to tell," he said.
This isn't the first time race has been recast in the play -- a 1974 Broadway production featured James Earl Jones as Lenny. Doing so requires a bit of adapting -- they did a lot of research on African-American slang of the time and had to reposition the character Crooks.
Udom said he has had to think about how to play the character, realizing an African-American at that time would have been more cautious about flashing George's quick wit and confidence. That extended down to the way he moved, an African-American would have moved with more defensiveness and caution.
Haas said she believes that interpretation adds to the tension of the play. "There's already a lot of foreshadowing [in the text], and this is another way to make the stakes that much higher than before," she said.
Much of the work of preparing for the play is nurturing the relationship between the two leads. Much of that includes exercises in improvisation and mirroring. This is important, Haas said, because, in many ways, Lenny models his behavior on cues from George.
Barlow said this part of the work has been rewarding. He began acting only in 2010, when he was talked into playing a character somewhat similar to Lenny in the Hubbard Hall production of "Incorruptible." He said he has benefited greatly from the way the company mentors new actors and guides them through the process.
"This whole place is an education," he said. "It rubs off on you. You perform with people who really know what they're doing. And then you work hard together."
All described the effort they made to find the common threads in the play, to make it about more than just a text from another era. Though known as a novel, it was always ready for the stage.
And it seems to be having another moment. An eagerly awaited production, starring film actor James Franco, now playing on Broadway.
Udom said he hopes the story's message finds a way through.
"Now is also a time people need to come together, especially those who are less-fortunate," he said.
John Hadden, artistic director of the Theater Company, said they included "Of Mice and Men" because it addresses, in a way, the situation of the agricultural economy.
"I try to balance the season, so there's something everyone recognizes, and there's something funny, and there's something with a little more local texture to it," he said.
Hadden, who has been at Hubbard Hall for about three years, after taking over for longtime director Kevin McGuire, said at Hubbard Hall, they have always chosen works that interest them.
"We have a nice blend of the traditional and the experimental," he said. "We just pursue our own delight."
If you go ...
What: ‘Of Mice and Men'
by John Steinbeck
When: Fridays and Saturdays
at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 18
Where: Hubbard Hall Opera House, 25 E. Main St., Cambridge, N.Y.
or $15 for students