‘Of Mice and Men’
Where: Arkansas Repertory Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sun., concludes Sun.
Tickets: $20-$30, call 378-0405.
Ever since Bob Hupp took over as producing director of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, the well-traveled Joseph Graves — he’s such a vagabond, it’s hard for him to pinpoint an actual residence — has found a regular stopping-off spot at The Rep, playing seven roles in five years.
“Joe,” as he prefers to be called, has played characters as diverse as political bigshot Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men” to his current role, the mentally challenged Lennie Small in “Of Mice and Men.” The 50-year-old actor, who bears a resemblance to the TV and Broadway actor John Cullum of “Northern Exposure” fame, can bring fatherly warmth to the stage, as he did in the Rep’s “All My Sons.” In “Of Mice and Men,” Graves conveys Lennie’s mental disabilities to the audience without sliding into the comic. His characterization ranges from tender to giggly to suddenly violent, and though Graves doesn’t seem to be physically imposing off stage, he has a commanding presence on it.
It’s an interesting coincidence that Graves — whose work at The Rep is due to his friendship with Hupp — actually lived in Arkansas as a child and young adult. Now, when Graves comes to act at The Rep, he stays with his parents, who’ve retired to Benton.
Graves’ connection with Hupp traces to the Jean Cocteau Theater in New York, where Hupp worked with director Eve Adamson. When Hupp staged “Othello” in his first year at The Rep, Graves appeared as Iago and Adamson directed.
When he’s not at the Rep, Graves can be found in Beijing, where he helped start the Beijing Institute of World Theatre and Film. Now the institute’s artistic director, Graves has staged 11 plays at the Beijing institute in two years, including three performed in Mandarin. He’s also appeared there in the Rep-sponsored “Revel’s World of Shakespeare,” a one-man show he wrote.
It took a lot of hoop-jumping to start the institute, Graves said, but Chinese government officials have been supportive. “The theater system in China is completely different from ours,” Graves said. A goal of the institute is to help Chinese mainland universities establish theater departments.
Graves said he and Hupp hope to bring “Revel’s World of Shakespeare” to the Rep stage in coming seasons.
“It’s pretty autobiographical,” Graves said. He lived in Leeds, England, for the first six years of his life before his Baptist-preacher father and music-teacher mother returned the family to Arkansas. For humor, Graves drew on his scholarly headmaster there, a drunkard who attempted to teach Shakespeare to 6- and 7-year-olds.
“The first day of class, I was asked to read from a monologue and I was pissing on myself in class and didn’t want to go back,” Graves said with a laugh. “My father talked me into going back. This teacher would have been fine as a graduate class teacher, but we were kids.”
Graves returned to England after college and attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, eventually directing plays in the West End. When he returned to the United States, he landed in Los Angeles and got work in an Arkansas-based TV miniseries, “The Blue and the Gray,” which starred Gregory Peck, Stacy Keach and others.
“Of Mice and Men” marks Graves’ 105th production. “I’ve done lots of musicals, Shakespeare, comedy,” he said. “I have no any one preference.”
“This particular show is a beautiful, beautiful play. [John] Steinbeck originally wrote it as a play before it was a book. Then it quickly became a movie. … It has little to do with the Depression other than the relationship of the poor workers. It’s a very male play with the one poor woman in the play called every name in the book.”
Though anyone familiar with the work knows of its tragic turn, Graves said, “I thought the way Bob [Hupp] has incorporated the music, with Old Jimmie Rodgers songs and such, I don’t think anyone leaves here feeling bad.”
Graves will be returning in January for The Rep’s Second Stage production of “Towns Facing Railroads,” based on the poetry of Jo McDougall and directed by Hupp mentor Adamson. After that production, Graves — who has several movie screenwriting credits, including “Sweetwater” — plans to return to Beijing through October, and later will direct an opera in San Francisco based on the life of author Jack London.