Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2008
Harper Lee (1926- ) published only one novel, but in her case one is enough. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is a truly deserving Pulitzer Prize winner, weaving together elements of faith and hope, comedy and tragedy, seen through the fresh eyes of youth – through the eyes of a young girl, Scout, growing up during the Great Depression in Maycomb, Alabama.
It is the summer of 1935 and Scout’s father, a widowed lawyer named Atticus Finch, is defending a young black man accused of raping a white girl. In the novel, which is narrated by the voice of the grown-up Scout, Atticus, the trial, and the world of the adults in Maycomb is secondary to the daily lives of the children – Scout, her beloved big brother Jem, and their eccentric neighbor, Dill.
While the book is not autobiographical, there is no doubt that it is based in Lee’s own childhood memories. She grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, her mother’s maiden name was Finch, her father was a lawyer, she was the youngest child – a tomboy and an avid reader like Scout – and she enjoyed the life-long friendship of her eccentric childhood neighbor, Truman Capote.
Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation premiered in 1990 in Monroeville, where it is performed every spring with a cast comprised of townspeople. White male jurors are selected from the audience during intermission, and the courtroom scene is performed in the Monroe County Courthouse, with the audience racially segregated. Harper Lee has refused to attend a performance. Indeed she is reclusive, eschews all publicity, and has stated emphatically that she is not interested in trading on ...Mockingbird’s popularity.
That this play has become an annual ritual for residents of Monroeville brings to mind the annual reenactment of the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday in many Christian churches. Monroeville residents seem eager to annually “own” the (fictional) racial sins of their past as a way of seeking forgiveness and purification, just as Christians must take annual personal responsibility for the crucifixion.
So it would seem that Sergel’s script was created for a completely different purpose than Lee’ novel, and it shows. Scout is no longer the narrator – that falls to the Finch’s neighbor, Miss Maudie, a relatively minor character in the novel. The story of the children’s obsession with their reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley, is minimized. The novel takes place across a span of about three years, while the play condenses the action into only a few weeks, consequently there is no “coming of age” story and the focus shifts almost entirely on to the trial.
In point of fact, Sergel’s script is merely a shorthand version of the novel – a method to jog the memories of those well acquainted with Lee’s work, and in incentive for newcomers to read it (because surely they will hear from others in the audience, “Oh, but the book is so much better!”) In this regard it succeeds, and so is an ideal accompaniment to Pittsfield’s Big Read. It is also an excellent fall production, ending as it does on Halloween night. Yes, the trial takes place in the heat of summer, but the overall tone of the show is autumnal, as if showcasing a slowly shifting and dying culture of racism, which we know is not the case.
Barrington Stage has mounted a production far stronger than Sergel’s script. Director Julianne Boyd has literally assembled a dream cast. Local favorites David Adkins (Atticus Finch), Debra Jo Rupp (Miss Maudie), and Bob Lohbauer (Judge Taylor and Mr. Cunningham) all grace the stage. Ken LaRon (Reverend Sykes), who originated the role of Tom Robinson in the stage premiere, brings a sense of history to the production and provides haunting blues harmonica interludes.
Adkins, fresh from his critically acclaimed performance as Vladimir in “Waiting for Godot” this summer at the BTF, consistently delivers well crafted performances. He is never the same person twice, and his Atticus Finch is a gentle soul of whom the world asks almost too much. We feel his pain as he works to raise his two broad-minded children in a narrow-minded world, and answers his calling to defend an unpopular cause. Adkins’ cry of despair as he scooped up Scout’s little cardigan after Jem and Scout have been attacked on Halloween night, spoke volumes about the pain people who stand alone against the rage of the mob must suffer for their conviction.
Three exceptionally talented youngsters – Grace Sylvia (Scout), Christian Meola (Jem), and Ross Kane Oparowski (Dill) – give strong performances individually and form a believable band of comrades.
While none of the younger actors are local, Jerome Spratling who plays the pivotal role of Tom Robinson is. Spratling is a current BCC student who has participated in both Shakespeare & Company and Barrington Stage’s youth theatre programs. If this performance is any indication, Spratling has the potential to make it in the always tenuous world of acting. Here he is completely self-possessed as he brings to life a character written a little too good to be true, allowing just tiny glimpses of Tom’s terror, anguish, and helplessness as he battles a system in which he knows he cannot win.
Another Shakespeare & Company trained young actress MaeEllen Scarpa portrays Tom’s accuser, Mayella Ewell, with a sense of desperation that is truly moving. For much of the trial scene she is on stage – watching – as Atticus and Tom shred her fragile web of lies and expose the true horror that is her daily life. I watched her watching and there was never a moment she was not in character and living Mayella’s hell as a fresh experience.
John Juback is almost too good as Mayella’s totally evil father, Bob Ewell. When he came out for his curtain call the audience I attended with almost booed and hissed instead of applauding, and then laughed as they realized how completely duped they had been by Juback’s performance and gave him the hand he deserved.
Lou Sumball doubles as the prosecutor, Mr. Gilmer, and the reclusive Boo Radley. I had problems with how Boo’s ultimate reveal was written, but not with Sumball’s performance. Bob Sorenson gives a centered performance as Sheriff Heck Tate (and briefly as Boo’s brother, Nathan Radley).
I am not quite sure what Sergel’s reasoning was replacing Scout as the narrator. There is always a concern when asking a young performer to carry a show, but legions of young actresses have proven that the talent is out there and that it can be done. Here Sylvia certainly could have handled it. Another option would have been to cast an adult actress as the grown-up Scout, as indeed that is the voice that narrates the novel. Removing Scout as the narrator and rendering her a mere spectator to her own story weakens the whole.
All that said, Rupp turns in a fine performance as Miss Maudie. It is not her fault she is playing a curiously weak character.
I also missed the fleshing out of the major black characters – the Finch’s housekeeper, Calpurnia (Venida Evans), and The Reverend Sykes – which made it clear in the novel that the black population of Maycomb was as close-knit, well-intentioned, and ornery as the white folks. Evans and LaRon were really wasted in roles that were sadly underwritten.
I found the final scenes of the play the most disappointing. Again, this is entirely Sergels’ fault, not Boyd’s. The transition from the trial scene to the attack was too swift, the leavening of comedy that Lee injected is completely missing (Scout was not costumed as a ham hock for the Halloween parade celebrating Maycomb’s agricultural plenty), and seeing Boo Radley calmly open the door of his house and walk out was deflating. In the novel, Boo is not revealed until after the attack, and Scout cannot see what is happening because of her costume. Here it was all too obvious who was after who and who came to the rescue.
I said at the outset that Boyd has given this play a much better production than it deserves. The show is beautifully staged on a flexible and intimate set by Marion Williams, seamlessly lit by Scott Pinkney. Boyd has a circle of mismatched chairs around the back of the set, mostly in shadow, where the cast sits while not actively performing. This gives that fish-bowl effect of small town life – the eyes always watching, the ears always listening – providing both the safety net that brings Boo Radley to Scout and Jem’s defense, and the lynch mob that seeks Tom Robinson in the County Jail.
Jacob Climer’s costumes are nicely period, especially the shoes which are well-worn, functional.
Overall, an excellent production of a weak play that merely stands in for its great progenitor. Hopefully everyone who comes to Barrington Stage will have either read the novel ahead of time or run home and read it immediately after, which is obviously the intent. Boyd has filled the stage with faces and voices worthy to be attached to Lee’s characters as new readers open the book and embark on the complete journey.
The Barrington Stage Company production of the To Kill a Mockingbird runs through October 26 on the Main Stage at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA. The show runs two hours and twenty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. Please call the box office at (413) 236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org to purchase tickets or for more information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008
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