Seven-foot-seven-inch-tall Daniel Gilchrist will bring Lennie Small’s larger-than-life presence to the stage at the Topeka Civic Theater.
A huge and physically strong character, Lennie is developmentally delayed and possibly autistic.
“He’s childish,” Gilchrist said. “He usually doesn’t grow up. He’s happy with the little pleasures in life.”
Lennie loves petting furry animals but is unable to handle them gently. He invariably kills those he touches but is unable to understand the concept of their death.
So connected… and so alone
It’s no coincidence that the author of the book and the screenplay adaptation, John Steinbeck, chose the surname “Small” for his character. It’s also no coincidence that the play is set in the Californian town of Soledad – Spanish for “loneliness,” the story’s dominant theme.
“It’s about absolute loneliness and the danger of being so alone and how it can just destroy someone,” said director Shannon Reilly. “Coming out of the pandemic, who can’t relate to that?”
The story has a magical resonance that happened by chance, he said.
“We feel so connected through the internet, through Zoom, through all kinds of mass media, and we can be so alone,” Reilly said.
The only two characters who aren’t alone are Lennie and his friend and caretaker, George Milton. Lennie is tall. George is small.
Although Gilchrist matched Lennie’s physical attributes, that alone didn’t land him the role.
“If he was just a big guy, he wouldn’t have the role,” Reilly said. “He’s not just a great guy. He’s a very talented actor, and he brought a lot of innocence to the role and an absolute, genuine temper to Lennie that I really love.
“You can tell it’s a special role for him.”
“He doesn’t really change at all”
Gilchrist said Lennie’s role was not evolving, but he was okay with that.
“For most stories (and their) protagonists, there is some sort of shift,” he said. “For Lennie, he starts out playing one with it and doesn’t really stray from it until the very end.”
Even at the end, “He’s still gullible, he’s still focused on the dream of having his own land, having rabbits,” Gilchrist said. “He doesn’t really change at all.”
Another constant is the relationship between Lennie and George. who are childhood friends. George has been the caretaker since Lennie’s aunt passed away.
“You have this relationship between a man and a man with special needs,” Reilly said. “It seems like it was written yesterday – this absolute brotherhood between two men who are bound together. Most of us don’t have such a deep friendship.”
The rest of the cast is plagued by loneliness. The other ranch hands are loners, and the couple in the story, while technically together, are emotionally alone.
“I like how subtle it is”
The sets are raw, earthy and incomplete, but with a sense of order and responsibility.
Local country music sets the tone as audience members enjoy dinner. The show begins with light sounds like the chirping of birds.
As the show progresses, it slowly shifts to a more ominous tone. The intermission features Depression-era music, including Woody Guthrie.
The show culminates with bittersweet sounds, then silence.
“I like how subtle it is, it doesn’t beat your head, but it’s a great piece to show someone’s disabilities and how people at the time didn’t know it,” said said Gilchrist.
“The Great Sequoia”
A graduate of Topeka High School, Gilchrist was playing basketball at the time, but he was much more interested in acting. His first TCT role was as The Creature in “Frankenstein.”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from Washburn University with a major in theater, he found some success as an actor, notably in the films “Beast in the Water” and “Chained for Life”.
“When I’m looking for potential gigs, sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn’t because of my stature,” Gilchrist said.
One of those gigs, which spanned over three years, was his stint as a professional wrestler, “The Great Sequoia.” Gilchrist grew up watching professional wrestling. Then one day a strange thing happened.
“I was approached by a guy who was like, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about pro wrestling?’ and I said yes,” he said. “Towards the end, it had an impact on my body.”
When he’s not acting, Gilchrist is busy with his business, Stripes Unlimited, which paints parking lot stripes, high-pressure washes buildings and does janitorial work for commercial clients.
Reilly, meanwhile, has been in theater his entire career, spending over 30 years as a writer, director and professional actor.
After directing ‘Of Mice and Men’ 20 years ago, he said he once again saw circumstances tear Lennie and George’s relationship apart.
“It’s painful,” he said. “So I think it’s just this really glorious story about needing another person.”
“Of Mice and Men” runs April 15-30 at the Topeka Civic Theater, 3028 SW 8th Ave.
More information and tickets are available by phone at 785-357-5211 or online at topekacivictheatre.com.