Saturday, February 25, 2017

WOBT: "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Several stage versions of Harper Lee's beloved Pulitzer Prize novel To Kill a Mockingbird [1960] have appeared over the years. One adaptation that is most often performed is by Christopher Sergel, and each one puts its individual stamp on Lee's masterpiece.

Director Sam Wallace is at the helm at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre which is ending its sold-out run of Sergel's version this weekend. In a stripped-down production, he relies on actors and text to focus on Lee's messages, and though the plot is familiar to just about everyone, the presence of racism in America resonates forcefully in 2017, and reminds all of us that Thomas Jefferson's "all men are created equal" should be given more than lip-service.

Partly the "coming of age story" of tomboy Jean Louise "Scout" Finch [Rebecca Joy Schannep], her older brother Jeremy "Jem" [Braden Fine] and their sometime neighbor Charles Baker "Dill" Harris [Levi Bone], who are fascinated and afraid of the reclusive neighbor they have never seen -- Arthur "Boo" Radley [Patrick Tatum] -- the story is set in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama in 1935, where Scout's and Jem's lawyer-father Atticus [Roy Goldfinger] agrees to defend Tom Robinson [Spencer Vaughn], a Black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell [Hannah Moore] the daughter of Bob Ewell [Eric Arvidson], a drunkenly aggressive and racist White man.

Facing the derision of many townspeople, Atticus believes Tom to be innocent; yet he realizes that he can't win the case because a White-only jury would never return a verdict of "not guilty" for a Black man so accused. The trial matches Atticus against defense attorney Mr. Gilmer [Douglas Mitchell], whose smooth twisting of evidence is a big challenge. Even though Atticus shows in court that Tom is innocent and humiliates the Ewells in public, the children believe Tom must be turned free; but the verdict comes down as expected, and Bob Ewell promises revenge.

When Ewell attacks the children one night, Atticus believes a wounded "Jem" had defended "Scout", killing Ewell in the fight. Sheriff Heck Tate [Michael B. Snead] knows that "Boo" Radley had protected the children, creating a dilemma for Atticus: a public trial of the simple recluse would do more damage (like killing a harmless mockingbird) than to accept the sheriff's pronouncement that "Bob Ewell fell on his own knife."

"Scout" has learned best that it is important to put yourself into another person's shoes in order to understand the complexities of the world; not always a happy realization, but certainly a big part in growing up, that both Atticus and the family's housemaid Calpurnia [Tunisia Thomas] reinforce daily by both word and example.

Some of the key moments in the play go by very quickly, lessening the impact as a result; specific moments need more stage time to allow audiences to absorb them -- the showdown between Atticus and the mob at the jail who want to hang Tom; the attack on the children and death of Ewell, for example. And the large group scenes and singing get a bit too raucous for important dialogue to be heard clearly.

But the focus is on the featured roles: each of the children give credible characterizations; both Mr. Arvidson and Ms. Moore are hateful Ewells in their deliberate lying under oath; Mr. Snead's sheriff is conflicted in his duty yet a representative of clear thinking; Mr. Vaughn is stoical and sympathetic as Tom; Ms. Thomas is a no-nonsense Calpurnia; Mr. Mitchell is a strong presence as Gilmer.

In smaller but important roles, Janie Allred shines as the fussy demanding neighbor Mrs. DuBose, and Lolly White is a clear and focused narrator, Miss Maudie.

Holding attention from start to finish is the nuanced performance given by Mr. Goldfinger as Atticus; he can be a commanding and persuasive lawyer, a sympathetic disciplinarian father, a compassionate neighbor, a cool-headed man when confronted by dangerous threats, and above all a moral arbiter whose integrity is intact throughout. His impassioned defense of Tom ought to be seen and heard by more people than the WOBT can hold. -- When Rev. Sykes [Calvin Johnson] intones the memorable line "stand up, your father is passing" to a disappointed "Scout" after the guilty verdict is read, we wholeheartedly agree that he deserves respect from everyone.