Stage & Dance

Troupe knew 'Mice and Men' was a show 'we can do well'

After several years of looking west for plays, the Lexington Opera House's Broadway Live series looked east for this year's season opener.

Of Mice and Men by Barter Theatre of Abingdon, Va., opens the 2009-10 Broadway Live series with performances Friday through Sunday. The past several seasons, the Opera House had booked plays such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and To Kill a Mockingbird from Montana Repertory Theatre.

Barter Theatre opened in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, when actor Robert Porterfield returned home from New York with the idea of opening a theater that would accept items such as produce, e.g., fruits and vegetables, as admission to shows, hence its name. Among the actors who graced its stage were Kentuckians Patricia Neal and Ned Beatty, and the theater eventually began a tradition of touring.

"The Barter has been touring pretty much since we began," says Katy Brown, artistic director of Barter Players, who is directing John Steinbeck's Depression-era classic, but "This is our biggest tour in years."

The Barter, which primarily toured regionally in recent years, decided to strike out on a national tour for the first time in the worst economic crisis since the Depression.

Brown says the theater announced the tour with the caveat that if not enough theaters responded, it would not go. But they did, and the tour is booked coast to coast, mostly in venues of more than 2,000 seats, Brown says.

That was part of the motivation for doing a big-cast, big-set show. The directors knew the production was going into theaters that usually host eye-popping musicals.

"It's a full-Equity show," Brown says, meaning all the actors are professionals and members of the stage actors union. "We wanted to leap in and do this right."

The most important thing in picking Mice, Brown says, is "we knew this was something we can do well. There's something people like about seeing great American theater, and a great American piece."

The story of two misplaced migrant workers might be a reminder of troubles right outside the theater door for some. But Brown says, "one of the major things we focus on is the hopeful aspects. The sad is built in, so we said we need to find the hope. ... It's a beautiful artistic struggle."