Allison Olivia Choat went caving deep underground in Kentucky to research her previous directing gig. This time she just had to learn about “pants rabbits” and “pillow pigeons.”
Choat directs Moonbox Productions’ staging of John Steinbeck’s play “Of Mice and Men,” based on his 1937 novel, at the Boston Center for the Arts, Friday through Dec. 22. “They say Eskimos have 100 words for snow. Well, I don’t know if that’s true, but Steinbeck had about 100 words for lice,” Choat says.
“Of Mice and Men” is the story of California farmhands George and Lennie, Depression-era drifters whose dreams collide with the dark side of human nature. Phil Tayler, who starred in Moonbox’s “Floyd Collins,” is the caring George, and Harry McEnerny plays the strong but simpleminded Lennie.
While the tale has been a staple of high school classes for decades, Choat says the story has fresh resonance amid America’s current troubles.
“Unfortunately for our economy, this is a pretty pertinent time for a play about deprivation and want,” Choat says. “We have our own economic crisis, we have our own mini-Dust Bowl. And it’s changed how I think about this play.”
Growing up, Choat had little experience of “want,” she says, but the current economic crisis has brought home realities like unemployment lines and a growing homeless population. “I think the story just has so many rich layers and so much to tell us about how people handled this the last time they handled it. And that we do have a lot to learn, most importantly about what really matters.
“In Steinbeck generally, and in this play specifically, people are always reaching out for human connection. And the people in ‘Of Mice and Men’ are so desperate for it,” Choat says. “There’s this mentality now of every man for himself. . . . ‘Of Mice and Men’ is a very eloquent argument against that, that one of the best things we can do in a time like this is support each other and be good to each other and not isolate ourselves.”
Moonbox producer and artistic director Sharman Altshuler, 48, had the idea to found the company in 2010 and brought fellow Cambridge resident Choat onboard. Choat, 28, worked as a travel planner for Altshuler’s husband’s company, and Altshuler was “dimly aware” that Choat was “zipping off in the summer to direct opera” at places including the Santa Fe Opera and Oberlin Conservatory Opera Theatre.
“After joking about it for a while, we thought we really could do this, let’s put on a show, quote unquote, and we did,” says Altshuler, a veterinarian who had done some community and school theater as a teenager. A devoted fan as an adult, she was looking for a new challenge.
Altshuler’s original goals for Moonbox included hiring local talent and using theater to build community. Each production is used as an opportunity for a local group to connect with the audience.
This time the group is More Than Words, a nonprofit organization that helps at-risk youth by putting them in charge of its used-book stores in Waltham and the South End. Group leaders will speak briefly before each performance of “Of Mice and Men” and mingle during intermission, to “get the word out about who they are and what they do,” says Altshuler.
Oberlin grad Choat has directed all three of the company’s previous shows: “Godspell,” in spring 2011, “Lucky Stiff” the following fall, and “Floyd Collins,” about a failed cave rescue in 1920s Kentucky, last spring.
All three are musicals; “Of Mice and Men” is Moonbox’s first straight play. All but a couple of Choat’s directing jobs going back to college have been musicals or operas, but she’s finding her experience suited to the Steinbeck characters’ deceptively simple diction.
“One of the things that working on so many musicals has helped me to do is bring out the musicality of the language,” she says. “The cadence of the language and how it’s expressed and the moments of silence between people, all of these things are tremendously important, and they form their own soundscape, their own music, if you will.”
One other unusual aspect to the production: The dramaturg assisting Choat with her research is . . . her mother. Dorothy Childs was heavily involved in theater in college and grad school, but became an English teacher. Now retired, she’s helping her daughter for the second straight production.
“I remember when I was starting ‘Floyd Collins,’ she bought like 20 books on farming culture in Kentucky and was just tearing through them,” Choat says, laughing. “She called me late at night, and I thought oh, no, something bad has happened. . . . And she said, ‘You have got to read this about mule-plowing, this is so fascinating!’ And I’m like, ‘Mom, I thought someone was dead!’ ”
Commonwealth Shakespeare Company will tackle “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” this summer for its 18th season of free performances on Boston Common. Artistic director Steven Maler will direct the comedy, which finds Valentine and Proteus competing for the favors of the duke’s daughter and learning, in the company’s words, that what happens in Milan stays in Milan. Casting and dates to come later.