John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is filled with heart-rending characters, and in a recent production in Portland, one four-legged actor stole both the show and the hearts of viewers. Well-known in Hillsboro, Oregon, Ollie’s person, Artfull Garden owner Kay Mattson, is one of many local business owners making downtown dog friendly. Ollie is 14, and about 6 weeks ago was diagnosed with cancer and given three months to live. Her recent performances in the play have made for a poignant swansong, earning her rave reviews and thousands of admirers.
Bag&Baggage Productions is a professional theater company in Hillsboro, and Of Mice and Men was the debut show of its fifth season. Published in 1937, it tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers during the Great Depression in California. George and Lennie take jobs at a ranch where they meet other flawed farmhands. Lennie is big and strong, yet has the intelligence of a child. George is Lennie’s best friend who tries unsuccessfully to keep him out of trouble. They meet Candy, an old farmhand being bullied by a younger farmhand. Candy has a dog the younger man thinks should be shot. That dog is Ollie. “It’s a beautiful story, but very sad,” says Scott Palmer, B&B artistic director. “Ollie’s story is art imitating life in a very sad way.”
Palmer approached Kay about Ollie performing the role of Candy’s dog knowing Ollie to be a wonderful, sweet old dog. Ollie is a Nova Scotia duck-tolling Retriever —a small golden bred to hunt ducks. She sits quietly, her gray face observant, front paws charmingly crossed.
“When I asked about Ollie being in the show Kay asked what the dates were and told me that Ollie wouldn’t be feeling well after late October,” says Palmer. Initially, he didn’t tell the actors that Ollie would be put to sleep after October, but the story got out and they had to be told. “It’s really obviously very sad for us,” says Palmer.
Happily however, Kay says Ollie is having the time of her life. “Every time they come to get her for rehearsal or a play you wouldn’t know at all that she is ill,” she says. “She gets very excited and bright-eyed. So my thought was, what a gift for her that toward the end of her life she is doing something so wonderful. She gives love so freely to everyone, it’s wonderful.”
Ollie is a natural. She takes direction easily, sits where she’s supposed to, and even hams it up. “The first night we had her for dress rehearsal, when she’s being led offstage, she stopped and looked back over her downstage shoulder so the audience could see her looking at the actor playing her owner,” says Palmer. “Every single actor loves her. We’re giving her treats all the time.”
According to Kay, Ollie’s last few weeks have been filled with love. “Not 10 minutes goes by that she isn’t getting love from someone,” she says. “I want the last month and a half of her life to be the best ever. Every morning I tell her, ‘let’s plan on three more years instead of three months.’”
Of Mice and Men ends October 14. For more information, visit www.bagnbaggage.org or call the box office at (503) 345-9590. The Artfull Garden is located at 222 E Main St., Hillsboro * 503-648-7817.