Tuesday, March 19, 2013

ASF: "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Fifty-three years after Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning and only published novel To Kill a Mockingbird introduced the world to its Depression Era hero Atticus Finch, a stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel is playing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Local audiences have had ample opportunities to see one or another version over the years, but this one's approach adds a freshness to the familiar story. Several other plays focus on the coming-of-age story of Scout [Abbie Salter], Jem [Reese Lynch], and Dill [Tapley Cronier], yet both Sergel's script and Diana Van Fossen's even handed direction of her excellent ensemble of actors gives a balanced interpretation. While many of the play's serious themes -- racism, class distinctions, courage -- are seen through the lens of curious children eagerly seeking answers to grown-up issues confronting them, the adult world's complexities and contradictions are truly the heart of the matter.

The quasi-autobiographical story is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama (cf. Monroeville) in 1936, and hinges on the trial of Tom Robinson [Jordan Barbour], a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell [Michelle Geisler], the white teenaged daughter of the town's most vicious racist, Bob Ewell [Ian Bedford]. Though clearly innocent of the crime, Tom doesn't stand a chance of acquittal by an all white jury in a town and time that presume that all black people lie and that Tom broke the "code of separation" between blacks and whites by doing odd jobs for Mayella for free and feeling sorry for her. Both race and class distinctions elevate the Ewell's crude white-trash existence over Tom's place at the bottom of the social stratum simply because he is black. Even Judge Taylor [Tom Lawson] can't change that.

Atticus [Kurt Rhoads in his impressive first appearance at ASF] defends Tom in court despite the predictable outcome and despite the mean-spirited taunting of his children by their schoolmates because, as he tells them, sometimes a person just has to do what is right. -- Mr Rhoads' decidedly understated performance demonstrates Atticus' unflappable demeanor when confronted by a lynch mob headed by Walter Cunningham: Paul Hebron subtly shifts from a subservient man who can't afford legal fees and so pays Atticus in turnip greens, to a hard-nosed aggressor, to a reluctant and recalcitrant man when Scout diffuses the lynch mob. -- As Atticus is known to be a gentleman, Mr. Rhoads treats everyone with the same diffidence, regardless of race or social status; and while this is taken at first as weakness by the children, they gradually learn through his gentle approach and firm standards so that he changes in their estimation from a man who is "not interested in anything" to a hero.

The children's world of innocent games and inherent grasp of right and wrong is tested as the trial puts things in a new perspective for them. As Scout, Ms. Salter's persistence in asking why things happen or why people behave in ways she knows are wrong can be annoying, but she clearly idolizes Atticus and regularly sits in his lap to absorb his sage advice. When Jem is made to read to grumpy neighbor Mrs. Dubose [Janelle Cochrane] as punishment for destroying her flowers, Mr. Lynch's resistance to his father's disciplinary action is honestly rendered; his performance is the most credibly natural of the children here and in his creating Gothic stories about their mysterious neighbor Boo Radley [Brik Berkes], and in his sister's defense against Bon Ewell's attack. As Dill, Mr. Cronier affords some lighthearted humor as the bespectacled instigator of tests of courage and his appeal to Atticus when he runs away is met with Mr. Rhoads' gentle compliance. -- Keeping the children in check is Cheri Lynne Vandenheuvel as their housekeeper Calpurnia; her outspoken discipline of the children is met with well earned applause.

Maudie Atkinson [Greta Lambert] and Stephanie Crawford [Jennifer Barnhart] are two of the local women who help connect the various plots & subplots with their contrasting views of the town, its inhabitants, and its events. They see things differently, but add texture to the proceedings -- Ms. Barnhart with her gossip's tongue and haute demeanor; and Ms. Lambert with her compassionate bearing serves also as a narrator and motherly guide to the children, an occasional impishness or kindly understanding makes her stand out to them and to us.

Mr. Barbour's portrayal of Tom is rendered simply and convincingly. When he finally takes the stand in  his own defense, we feel his difficulty in telling the truth that must be told; he doesn't want to hurt anyone and knows the consequences of testifying against a white woman. And, as the audience is complicit in serving as the jury in the trial, we are challenged to confront our own moral obligations.

Atticus has said that all men are created equal only in a court of justice, but that it all depends on the strength of the jury. Perhaps they have been swayed by prosecutor Mr. Gilmer [Anthony Marble] and his clever intimations of Tom's guilt. When the verdict is announced, the children are devastated, but what are we to think? The Ewells get off scott free and swear revenge, an attack on Jem and Scout that is thwarted by Boo Radley. Mr. Berkes has this small pivotal role that he distinguishes by his combination of violent retributive justice against Bob Ewell and his gentle treatment of Scout and Jem; as he returns to his reclusive existence, Atticus can only say "Thank you for my children."

Justice will prevail through Sheriff Heck Tate [Rodney Clark's solid performance] who insists that Bob Ewell "fell on his knife"; rather than put Boo Radley on trial for ridding the town of the miscreant, and commanding the situation despite Atticus' regard for the law, he states definitively: It's my decision.

Like it or not, the whole town looks up to Atticus -- a private man who surprises his children with his sharp-shooting in killing a mad dog, and who is so persuasive in defending Tom that, although the verdict is a foregone conclusion, he is "the only man who could make a jury take so long", and who deserves the respect of one and all as the preacher tells the children: "Stand up...your father is passing".

If society has not completely changed, this might indicate a small shift towards equality. Something to think about.