Ex-English teacher helps bring Steinbeck classic to stage


A former English teacher, Brian Coon has had his students read “Of Mice and Men” dozens of times.

“Almost every year, I taught it to sophomores or juniors,” Coon said. “I was really attracted to this show. This is one of my all-time favorite novels.”

The Westfield resident portrays George Milton in “Of Mice and Men” from Feb. 10 to 20 at the Basile Westfield Playhouse.

Coon is also the show’s lighting director. The show’s director, James Williams, approached Coon about being the lighting director.

“My only caveat was, I still would audition for it,” Coon said. “I like doing the lighting, but I didn’t want to miss out on the chance to possibly be in the show.”

George is the role he wanted, Coon said.

“The whole show is George and Lennie (Small),” he said.

The play is based on John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel about two migrant field workers, George Milton and Lennie Small. Small is a strong man who is mentally disabled and doesn’t know his own strength. The play is set in the U.S. during the Great Depression.

“Joe Wagner, who is playing Lennie, is fantastic,” Coon said. 

Coon’s most recent performance was in “Going, Going, Gone” at the old Westfield Playhouse venue in 2019.

A Fishers resident, Wagner said he has a history with the character, although he has never played him before.

“In college, friends would make fun of me and call me Lennie sometimes because I was kind of uncoordinated and knocked things over all the time,” Wagner said. “So (the role) was always in the back of my head. When I saw it come around, I thought I would give it a shot to see if it would work.”

Wagner said a lot of pressure comes with playing an iconic role. Lon Chaney Jr. played Lennie in the 1939 movie, and John Malkovich played the role in the 1992 remake.

“It’s such an interesting character because he is just so innocent and incredibly dangerous,” Wagner said. “He is trapped inside of a body he can’t control. That is really compelling to me because he does these sad and horrible things, but he almost has no control over how it happens or how anything looks.”

Wagner said his character pleads with George that they need to leave the ranch because he knows if they stay, he is going to get in trouble.

“Already he is not feeling right, so his instincts are correct,” Wagner said. “He is a tragic victim of circumstances.”

Wagner said he has seen a handful of different performances in movies and on YouTube.

“It was important to me to not speak in a stereotypical, mentally handicapped voice,” he said. “It just wasn’t something that I was super interested in. I have an aunt who is special needs as well. They say multiple times he’s just like a child trapped in a man’s body. A child I can completely connect with.

“The language and lines help you out immensely. If you do the line the way it’s written, that is half the work for you.”

Williams, a Fishers resident, is directing his first show for Westfield Playhouse.

“This is my first time with this show,” he said. “I fell in love with it several years ago in high school when they still taught it. It’s been a bucket list for me. The role I would have loved to play is Lennie, but I feel I’m almost too old for it. I’ve seen several productions of it. I wanted my turn at it.”

 For more, visit westfieldplayhouse.org.