When Temple Theatre artistic director Jerry Sipp asked Burning Coal Theatre Company artistic director Jerome Davis of Raleigh, NC to direct the Sanford, NC-based theater company’s Jan. 23-Feb. 9 production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Davis eagerly accepted.

“I agreed instantly,” Davis recalls, “because it is a modern classic and because it is about social issues that I think are best kept on the front burner, rather than pushed to the back, as many would have us do. Also, it was written about a period in our history just prior to a great war — and a reexamination of that mindset is called for at this time, I should think. I believe it was very perceptive of Mr. Sipp to put the play on his season.”

First published in 1937 as a gritty six-chapter novella liberally sprinkled with curse words and racial slurs, and later adapted for the stage by the Nobel Prize for Literature and Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Of Mice and Men is set in Dust-Bowl America during the 1930s. The book takes its title from “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough,” a 1785 work by Scottish poet Robert Burns, whose most famous line is “the best-laid schemes o’ mice and men often go awry.”

Davis says, “I feel like I have known of the source material all my life. I have no idea when I first became aware of it. It very well may have been on my high school reading list in English class, but I’m not sure.

“I have seen film versions of [Of Mice and Men] before,” Davis says, “including the John Malkovich/Gary Sinise version from the early 1990s and an earlier [1981] TV version with Robert Blake as George and Randy Quaid as Lennie. I remember that version as being particularly effective.”

Davis says George Milton (Jerry Sipp) and Lennie Small (David Dossey), the central characters of Of Mice and Men, are itinerant farm workers, drifting from job to job in California during the Great Depression. Lennie is a big and powerful man, with the mind of a small boy. George is his small, nimble-witted friend and protector; but their friendship is now strained, because Lennie’s curiosity, and the fact that he does not know his own strength, keeps getting the temperamental giant in trouble.

“At the beginning of the play,” Davis notes, “George and Lennie are about to begin work on a big farm, and they are relishing their last night of freedom before going to work for ‘the man.’ Lennie is mentally handicapped, and George has become his surrogate parent or caretaker.”

But abrasive personalities and powerful temptations on their new job will prove irresistible for Lennie, and will test the limits of George’s ability to smooth over the escalating adverse aftereffects of Lennie’s blunders.

Besides Sipp and Dossey, the Temple Theatre cast also includes Jim Fleming (Candy), Thomas Edward Dalton (Slim), Micah Cover (Curley), Lennardo DeLaine (Crooks), Martin Thompson (The Boss), William G. Stutts, Jr. (Whit), Stephen N. Moore (Carlson), and Ellie Lawrence (Curley’s Wife).

Staging Of Mice and Men at the Temple Theatre, an art-deco style building completed in 1925 and located in historic downtown Sanford, presents sizable challenges to director Jerome Davis and his creative team, which includes set designer Robert John Andrusko, lighting designer Christopher Popowich, costume designer Mary McKeithen, prop coordinator by Thomas Dalton, musical director Julie Florin, and choreographer Deb Gillingham.

“We have to get past everyone’s idea of the play,” Davis claims. “I think everyone knows, or thinks they know, Of Mice and Men. There’s a certain pastoral quality that has seeped into the work — a certain rose-tinted pleasantness that was not, so far as I can tell, a part of the lives of these men at all.

“For the design team,” Davis adds, “the challenge is to avoid naturalism, which is usually how Mice is played, and to find a visual representation of Steinbeck’s great work. He was trying to write a new kind of novel when he wrote Of Mice and Men — one that was spare and uncluttered by emotion and sentiment. I think Robert John Andrusko’s scenery is particularly effective at conveying that idea. The costumes and lighting are still being created, so we’ll see about that.”

Davis describes the set as “a big open space that hopefully conveys the vastness of the landscape and also the interiors in which most of the play is set,” and he says the lighting is “stark.”

Concerning the costumes, Davis says, “We’re using the two colors which Steinbeck uses in the novella: the faded blues of the men’s workclothes and the whitewashed walls of the bunkhouse and barn.”

Davis adds, “A lot of the same people I work with at Burning Coal Theatre Company in Raleigh are involved in this production (David Dossey, Debra Gillingham, Jim Fleming, Julie Florin). I think it is terrific to have the opportunity to see if the Burning Coal methods can be put to use in a different environment — in a different kind of theatre.

“This is the first time I’ve worked on a proscenium stage in years,” says Jerome Davis, “and I am really enjoying it. Sanford has a terrific asset in the Temple Theatre. I hope Raleighians and others from across the Triangle will go see the play to remind themselves of the value of the Temple in a community like Sanford and also to remind themselves of the great value of Steinbeck’s beautiful and heartfelt work.”

The Temple Theatre presents Of Mice and Men Thursday, Jan. 23 and 30 and Feb. 5, at 1:30 and 7 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, Jan. 24-25, Jan. 31-Feb. 1 and Feb. 6-7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 2 and 9, at 2:30 p.m. in the Temple Theatre, 120 Carthage St., Sanford, NC. $18 ($7 children), except $17 Jan. 23 opening-night gala and $5 Friday student matinees at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 24 and 31 and Feb. 7. 919/774-4155. http://www.wave-net.net/templetheatre/Productions/Current_Production/current_production.html.