IF DIRECTOR Paul Lazarus had had his way, there would have been no "Of Mice and Men" opening at the Pasadena Playhouse this weekend.
"I wanted to do 'Death of a Salesman,' " Lazarus admits. When old friend and Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps countered with John Steinbeck's masterwork on Depression-era ranch hands in California's Central Valley, "frankly, my heart sank," says Lazarus. "I thought, I know it so well, there's not a moment that's unexpected for me . . . but Sheldon said, 'Just read it, see if anything sparks.' "
And it did. With Lazarus's wife. She made a casting suggestion with a contemporary feel: what if Steinbeck's crew were Mexican laborers? A little research proved the idea had legs, courtesy of an overlooked bit of American history -- a mid-20th century treaty between Mexico and the U.S. designed to drive laborers northward, where they were often mistreated.
"I'm embarrassed to say I didn't know anything about the bracero program," says Lazarus, referencing the treaty now at the heart of his production. "But I've learned I'm not alone."
From 1942 -- when so much of the American workforce had to be re-directed to combat the Nazis -- through 1964, the bracero program legalized a massive wave of immigration.
"Skilled -- and I underscore that -- Mexican laborers were assigned to pick beets and build railroads," the director says.
This new context provides a movingly serendipitous bit of resonance, according to Epps.
"It reflects California's history, but also its present," he says. "Some of the same issues of disenfranchisement and striving for equality that Steinbeck was writing about back in the late '30s are still with us and being debated just as strongly today. Right now, this afternoon, if you drive from here to San Diego and glance to the right or left, you'll see people working the fields. We tend to speed by. This play literally makes you stop and look."
It also became apparent that it naturally fell in line with the Playhouse's Diversity Project, a commitment to wide-ranging works, multicultural casting and audience outreach, which Epps inaugurated in 2005 ("When I first arrived here [10 years ago], mine was often the only face of color and under 60," Epps says with a chuckle).
Such productions always feature community events staged in conjunction, and "Mice" is no exception. In fact, the hectic schedule surrounding "Mice's" rejiggering represents the Project's biggest effort yet, with a full week's worth of often free events, including an opening gala with music by local Mexican-Afro-Cuban jazzy rockers Quetzal and hosted by actor Andy Garcia, followed by photography exhibits, free staged readings, pay-what-you-can performances, a tasting of Central California wines and a panel hosted by KPCC-FM news anchor Shirley Jahad on Steinbeck and the American Dream.
Despite this ethnic makeover, however, Lazarus says he felt obligated to turn out a scrupulously faithful interpretation. "I had no intention of adapting the play," he says, noting that perhaps a total of five lines where substantially altered, while "Mice's" setting has been pushed up just five years from its original 1937 backdrop.
The director and largely bilingual cast also textured the dialogue with Spanish phrases, he says, which require no translation but lend an appropriate flavor. But the story and its poignant universality, Lazarus insists, were carefully guarded.
"Ultimately, the play's about the essential nature of the human journey," says Lazarus. "Its heart lies in the relationship between the two men and their desire not to be alone."
'OF MICE AND MEN'
WHERE: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena
WHEN: Opens 8 p.m. Fri., runs 8 p.m. Sat., 2 and 7 p.m. Sun., 8 p.m. Wed. See website for complete performance and event schedule. Ends June 8.
PRICE: $25-$65 (some events priced separately)
INFO: (626) 356-7529; www.pasadenaplayhouse.org