The Star-Ledger


By Peter Filichia

When a man is 6-foot-5 and more than 200 pounds, he'll often be mistaken for an athlete.

That's happened a good deal to Mark Mineart, who's never said yes when people have asked him if he's a professional sportsman. "I've never been the competitive type," he says. "The only reason I watch the Super Bowl is to see my friends in the commercials."

Mineart has many pals on those ads, because he's an actor, too. Now his enormous size has helped him land the role of the mentally fragile Lennie in the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's production of Of Mice and Men. The classic John Steinbeck work, about two migrant workers looking for their place in the world, opens Saturday in Madison.

"I've loved Of Mice and Men since high school -- even though it was an assigned book," he says.

During his years at the University of North Carolina, then at the University of Delaware, Mineart often thought about playing Lennie, although he was majoring in classical theater.

"I'd already figured out that with my build, if I went into film, I'd be the guy that Clint Eastwood shoots five minutes into the movie," he says. "Classical theater, though, would allow me to do swordfights, kiss girls and speak great language."

He fought with swords as Cyrano de Bergerac, kissed actresses in As You Like It and The Taming of the Shrew, and spoke great language in more than a dozen plays on Broadway (Macbeth) and in regional theater. While he had auditioned to play Lennie, who loves hearing his partner, George, tell of when they'll "live off the fat of the land," Mineart was second choice on two other occasions.

The third time, though, he landed the role in a Massachusetts production. "Then," he says dolefully, "my girlfriend left me. I suddenly had to pay for all of an apartment instead of half of one, so I had to stay at a day job just to make ends meet."

Meanwhile, Mineart was also frustrated with the 1992 film version of the play.

"John Malkovich played Lennie," he says, "and while he's a wonderful actor, you can take any frame of his portrayal, and you can see right away that there's something wrong with Lennie. I think it's important that you not know of his condition just from looking at him."

Mineart planned to play it differently -- if he ever got the chance. Yet waiting all these years may make the 38-year-old now deliver a better performance.

"First, our director, Joe Discher, told me about his sister, who has Down syndrome," he says. "Joe says that just like Lennie does with George, his sister always wants him to tell her a story he's told her a hundred times -- and that if he says any word differently, she immediately knows and stops him. The way he described her attention to detail had led me into deeper waters with the character."

Mineart says his understanding of the role was also enriched when Discher took the cast to Camp Hope in Whippany, a home for the developmentally disabled. He adds that he was greatly moved by a young boy who wouldn't stop hugging him when he got there.

"Everyone there was so happy," he says. "These people are really full of joy. ... I'm putting that happiness into Lennie."


The Daily Record

By Sarah N. Lynch

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey will give audiences a slice of lonely Depression-era America with John Steinbeck's classic Nobel Prize-winning story Of Mice and Men.

The show, which will run from Sept. 7 through Oct. 3 at Drew University in Madison, tells a tragic and compelling tale about the unlikely friendship of George, a drifter in search of work, and Lennie, a giant-sized man with the mind of a child. The two migrant workers dream of obtaining a place of their own to escape the reality of the hardships they endure.

But when Lennie's mental limitations get him into trouble, their American dream begins to unravel into tragedy.

The play fits this season's theme of "Awake and Dream," but for director Joe Discher, it was in part his own personal experiences that excited him about the show.

"My sister actually has Down syndrome, and I've grown up with somebody who I'm very connected with and who is very connected with me. In some ways, she's very functional and in some ways she's very dependent," Discher said, noting that his relationship with his sister parallels the relationship between George and Lennie.

"That's one of the reasons I was excited about the play. When you feel you have a specific connection to something, it makes it that much easier to be excited about the piece. I can relate to the affection that George and Lennie have for one another, and I can relate to the frustration that George has with Lennie," Discher said.

To help actor Mark Mineart portray Lennie, Discher brought Mineart to Camp Hope so he could interact with people who had a variety of mental disabilities. Mineart described the experience as "transformational."

"They had people from age 6 to 50 with a range of different challenges, but one thing that was almost universally true was all of those people were happy," Mineart said. "… They were just plugged directly into joy.

"One of the first things that happened was a kid came and put his arms around me and would not let me go for five minutes … and it made me feel amazing to see they have all this love to give," Mineart said.

He said he could see a lot of connections between the people he met at Camp Hope and Lennie, a simplistic man who throughout the play derives the greatest joy from petting soft things like mice, puppies and rabbits.

"(Lennie) lives in an aggressive, hard world and has to be told, 'You cannot do that. You cannot follow your impulses. Don't touch that, leave it alone, and shut up,'" Mineart said.

"That makes things like the puppy and rabbits and the softness much more important to him, and George is the person he loves. George is his family."

Mineart said he enjoys playing his extremely challenging role.

"Lennie is a special person, so there are definitely challenges involved in that," he said. "I'm used to doing a lot of Shakespeare, where your intelligence is always coming into it, … but Lennie is very reactive, so it's really a matter of seeing what people are doing and giving me and reacting to that in terms of his disability," Mineart said.

Playing the role of George is Graham Winton, who is returning to the Shakespeare Theatre for the first time in 12 years. Winton described his character as a type of father figure.

"He has incredible loyalty to Lennie," Winton said. "He could drop him at any time, but he doesn't. He has a responsibility. He promised Lennie's aunt he'd look after him, but he also loves this guy."

Winton said one thing that makes the play so enjoyable for him is the beauty of the language.

"It's hard for writers to do a good job of writing inarticulate people," Winton said. "These are working class people, and he's done a wonderful job of allowing these uneducated, not particularly articulate people to express themselves in beautiful language.

"The speech is idiomatic," he continued. "It's a lot of 'ain't got this' and 'ain't got that,' but in the end you get a form of the language that's beautiful."

Winton noted that one of the important themes in the play is the idea of the American dream and what that means for people like George or Lennie.

"For the people in power who have the money in hand, the dream can come true, but for the poor working guy, he can aspire to all sorts of things, but … the dream will not come true to the degree that he wishes," Winton said.

"It's really a story of loneliness and how these guys cannot be with other people. They are always alone."

But Discher said that even while the characters fall short of achieving their greatest hopes, the play still offers hope to those who dream.

"Despite the fact that George and Lennie's dream does not turn out the way they want it to, I still think what the play is telling us is to support our strength and our resolve no matter what happens," Discher said.

"There are so many moments during the play when characters are hoping and dreaming and when they are excited about the possibility of what could be, they are alive and beautiful and happy. … It does not negate the need for hopes and dreams that will always … give your life purpose," he said.