Theatre Mirror Reviews - "To Kill A Mockingbird"

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note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark

"To Kill A Mockingbird"

by Christopher Sergel
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by David Berti

Set Design by Ronald L. Dion
Lighting Design by Imagine Arts
Costume Design by Jennifer Howard
Stage Manager Lynne C. Dinger

Atticus Finch..............John McAuliffe
Scout (Jean Louise Finch).....Jamie Slatt
Jem (Jeremy Finch)........Jonathan Silver
Dill (Charles Baker Harris)...Max Bisantz
Walter Cunningham Jr. .......Chad Cochran
Tom Robinson.................Dennis Roach
Calpurnia.................Suzanne Wilkins
Reverend Sykes.............Robert Prescod
Boo Radley (Arthur)............Mark Leach
Nathan Radley................Joseph Grace
Mayella Ewell..............Judi Ann Mavon
Bob Ewell................Richard LeSchack
Maudie Atkinson.............JoAnne Powers
Stephanie Crawford.........Lauren Cochran
Mrs. Dubose....................Myra Ramos
Sherriff Heck Tate............Mike Gowing
Judge Taylor................Robert Machie
Walter Cunningham.........J. P. Giuliotti
Mr. Gilmer.....................Stan Alger
Clerk of Courts.............Jack Wickwire

In Christopher Sergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's novel "To Kill A Mockingbird" the date is fixed at 1935, the place as Maycomb, a tiny backwater town in Alabama. Since that time the novel has become a staple of high school reading lists, and Gregory Peck starred in what he thinks of as his best movie made from its story --- a classic still seen on cable stations. That's a lot of baggage for a show to carry, a lot of irrelevant ghosts to grapple with. Out at the Vokes Theatre Director David Berti and a cast of twenty, even doing everything right, have a hard time lighting a fire under this familiar, predictable old warhorse. But they win at least two falls out of three.

Certainly everyone looks right. There is a slump-shouldered rectitude in John McAuliffe's posture as lawyer Atticus Finch, a pinched, suspicious scowl on Richard LeSchack's face as the po'white-trash Bob Ewell, and a hangdog, beaten frown on Judi Ann Mavon as Bob's disgraced daughter Mayella. Robert Mackie's white hair crowns an impersonally businesslike Judge Taylor, and Dennis Roach has a quietly respectful, resigned dignity playing a Negro unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Why, even Max Bisantz as Dill ("I'm Charles Baker Harris; I can read!" is his first line) looks a lot like a five-year-old Truman Capote. Mark Leach manages the massive menace and the gentleness of the neighboring recluse Boo Radley. During the trial JoAnne Powers and Lauren Cochran, and everyone else, manage to look hot and wilted enough to wield their tired, ladylike fans. They look their parts, they sound their parts, they play their parts with conviction and insight.

It's just that the sum of those parts is a story with few surprises in a script that sounds hollow in its dated, preachy core. For instance, this is a play about prejudice, yet aside from falsely-accused Tom Robinson, only Robert Prescod as Reverend Sykes and Suzanne Wilkins as the Finch's housekeeper Calpurnia represent respectable Negroes, both with brief appearances.

At the center of the play is Jamie Slatt as Atticus' tomboy daughter Scout, who is learning what she must to grow up into her caste-conscious, prejudice-shackled Southern society. She and Jonathan Silver as her brother, and young Dill, thread through the story as a kind of chorus with innocent eyes, watching grown-up injustice defeat their father's illusionless honesty. The depths and subtexts to their parts would stymie actors five times their ages, but they get the sense of their lines if not their subtleties.

But the play also needs a narrator, patterned after the one in "Our Town" and that is JoAnne Powers as the insightful neighbor Maudie Atkins, who steps easily from lines in the action to direct exposition to the audience. She likes her sleepy little town, though she knows its faults. One of the script's faults, though, is that no one has time to establish much of a base-line of normal interconnections before all the oddities come their way. Thus the focus is on the unusual, and whole pages of the novel's backgrounding has to be reduced to aphorisms.

One thing on theVokes stage that does establish background is Ronald L. Dion's set. He puts the facades of four different homes onto that teacup stage with room to spare and hangs the whole with a fringe of Spanish moss. His set even gets a round of surprised applause when the houses separate for a courtroom scene carefully constructed by the cast under Clerk of Courts Jack Wickwire's stern command. The set and Jennifer Howard's costumes go far in creating a bygone South in which this Liberal morality-tale plays out its inevitable miscarriage of justice.

The problem is that there is nothing in doubt here. A groan of disbelief arises from the audience when the verdict is read, but that reaction is a compliment to the playing, not to the script. We have moved away from societies in which such bare-faced prejudice could go unmasked --- and that points up a problem with one pivotal scene, where the innocent eye of Scout turns a KKK mob back into embarrassed neighbors and prevents a lynching. Director Berti decided --- and rightly so --- that white robes and masks would look ludicrously quaint, but that robs Scout of the insight to recognize her neighbor by voice alone and by naming him making him feel ashamed. Prejudice has learned to be much more subtle than this old warhorse, no matter how well done, can convey.


Subject: To Kill A Mockingbird review
Date: Tue, 12 May 1998 14:34:43 -0400
From: (David Berti)

Mr. Stark,

In your review of the current Vokes Players' production of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which I directed, you say that I made the decision to avoid dressing the lynch mob (in the jailhouse scene) in white KKK robes and hoods.
I'm afraid this isn't quite accurate.

In Harper Lee's novel (upon which the play is based)-- Ms. Lee's young narrator, Scout Finch, describes the lynch mob as dressed "in overalls and denim shirts buttoned up to the collars.....some wore hats pulled firmly down over their ears." Scout goes on to tell us that she sought for a familiar face in the crowd and finally found one in farmer Walter Cunningham. There is no mention of white robes or hoods. We dressed our actors as Scout described them in the novel. I cannot take credit for Ms. Lee's wise decision.
David Berti

"To Kill A Mockingbird" (till 23 May)
Beatrice Hereford's Vokes Theatre, WAYLAND
Check their website.

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