To Kill a Mockingbird by Christopher Sergel, adapted from the novel by Harper Lee. Directed by Julianne Boyd.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"A victim of cruel poverty and ignorance."
Pulitzer prize winning novels should provide ample meat on the bones of their plots for dramatists properly digest while creating Pulitzer prize level plays. Harper Lee’s portrait of a family in the South during the Depression faced with a professional situation that hurts and humiliates all of its participants is just such a book. It doubles the fat content by bringing in the all-too human factor of children witnessing and digesting the situation, like they would a stew fresh from the stove. Adapted into a movie with Gregory Peck many years ago the material of Lee’s book proved to be not only classic, but dramatically rewarding. There was no reason, therefore, not to believe that a stage version of the piece would be equally effective if not moreso. In a new production at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA the work on stage makes its points but leaves the heartstrings a bit less tugged at then we might expect.
Perhaps the biggest difference, and the weakest link in this adaptation, is the change in perspective voice. In the book, and in the movie that almost everyone has seen and remembered, the narrative voice is that of the hero’s daughter, Scout. The story is told as she recalls it, as it affected her life. In the play that voice is gone and what narration exists comes from a neighbor, Miss Maudie, played beautifully and movingly by Debra Jo Rupp. Rupp, who has never looked lovelier or played a role with a stronger, more controlled emotional base, emerges from this talented company as the incidental star of the piece. It is not her story, however. It is not her place to draw focus, but inevitably as the one remembering the incidents of this summer of 1935, her character begins to dominate the proceedings. That is the way this cookie crumbles.
Atticus Finch, a small-town lawyer, is defending a black man in a rape case, the rape of a young white-trash woman. A widower with two young children, Atticus is a man conflicted. He knows his client is innocent. He knows he cannot win such a case in an Alabama town. His two youngsters believe strongly in his ability to overcome these odds. He discovers that no man is ever a failure if he treats all people with honesty and with humanity and that his children can more completely appreciate his best qualities if he is true to them and open about them - a fact that he comes to late in the proceedings. Protecting the young becomes a different force with a different level of understanding by the end of this story.
Grace Sylvia plays Scout and she does it with great élan. She is rarely off-stage and her tomboyish qualities are generally delightful. Her brother Jem is played by Christian Meola with a sweet sensitivity that is unusual in so young an actor. He is vulnerable and that is all to the good. Their friend, a newcomer to town named Dill, is played by Ross Kane Oparowski with just enough gumption to keep the three kids unique and different. This trio are really good together.
Atticus is portrayed by David Adkins, an exceptionally good actor as this season has proven. Fresh from playing in "..Godot" in Stockbridge, he does a complete 180 in this role. Whether trying to control his youthful brood or protect his client or try his case, he is a master of emotional reluctance. When faced with the near death of his son and daughter however he becomes a volcano of distress. Adkins plays all of his emotions as sleeve-bearing; his inner thoughts and feelings become obvious and clear and there is something unusually right about such a choice here. The tribute paid to him in court at the end of the trial by Reverend Sykes (nicely played by Ken LaRon) was much-deserved.
Bob Ewell, the villainous father of the rape victim, was more than adequately played by John Juback. He became so real in the role that his menacing of Finch later in the play was almost too natural and believable. Bob Lohbauer as the Judge delivered a perfect performance and Jerome Spratling as the black man accused of the crime was positively brilliant. His reticence to move, to speak, to show weakness in the face of the charges against him were deeply moving.
Lou Sumrall in his two roles, the prosecutor Gilmer and the recluse Boo Radley was wonderful and so was Peggy Pharr Wilson as Miss Stephanie, a gossipy and judgmental neighbor. Venida Evans as Calpurnia brings an entire world into focus in a note-perfect interpretation of her character. In fact the entire cast worked well in their roles and there was not a false note sounded in the performance.
It is just the writing of this script that weakens the material. There is such a richness in the telling of the tale in the novel that filtering it out diminishes some of its impact and, as mentioned, the changing of the narrative voice alters our emotional reaction to the story as it plays out.
Director Julianne Boyd has made some very fine choices in this piece. Both in casting the play and staging it she has done the best anyone could do with this play. The set, designed by Marion Williams, works magically setting time, place and tone for the play. Jacob Climber’s costumes, rather than alienating the audience from the era of the piece, orients us to the characters in their clothes and brings us closer to them. Scott Pinkney has given atmosphere and illumination through his lighting design. Boyd has woven all of this together, along with the actor’s participation, into a seamless fabric, a time-worn carpet of reality which allows Atticus Finch to say "I hoped to get through life without a case of this kind" and really show us that he doesn’t mean that.
The play is not a tragedy, though there are truly tragic elements here. It is not a comedy in the classic sense because a beloved character dies a tragic death. What Boyd and company are giving their audiences this October is a play that helps to define relationships, clarify situations and open the minds of audiences to realities that should have left us seventy years ago but still do exist.
It was a worthwhile offering and one that we should appreciate for all of its finest attributes.
Grace Sylvia and David Adkins; photo: Kevin Sprague
John Juback and Lou Sumrall; photo: Kevin Sprague
Debra Jo Rupp; photo: Kevin Sprague
To Kill a Mockingbird plays at Barrington Stage Company, on Union Street in Pittsfield, MA, through October 26. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 413-236-8888. Information at www.barringtonstageco.org.