I went to see Christopher Sergel’s theatrical adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” with trepidations. After all, I’d read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel and seen, many times, Robert Mulligan’s 1962 extremely faithful film version which won three Oscars, including for Horton Foote’s “Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.” And who can ever forget Gregory Peck’s sensitive, dignified Academy Award winning depiction of Atticus Finch, the small town attorney who defends an innocent Black man in the 1930s segregated South? More recently I saw and reviewed Mary Murphy’s 2010 documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’
So the Mockingbird novel, feature and documentary are tough acts to follow. To tell you the truth, if Mockingbird wasn’t being presented by my favorite theatre in L.A., Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, I would have skipped this production altogether.
But boy is this reviewer glad he didn’t! The live performances and director Ellen Geer’s skillful staging – which, as usual, uses the amphitheater’s Topanga Canyon topography to great effect – brought Lee’s story about childhood, racial discrimination, fatherhood and more vividly alive. And in one gripping scene [NOTE: Plot Spoiler Alert!!!] that I don’t recall being in the literary or film versions, this stage iteration powerfully, organically incorporates hooded, robed night riders. This is very shocking for those of us who have, mercifully, never seen in person the KKK, and Atticus Finch’s (Richard Tyson) standing up to these domestic terrorists only raises one’s appreciation for this character who symbolizes conscience and consciousness. And his little daughter Scout’s (Lily Andrew) unmasking of a Klansman is extremely moving, enhancing what is already a precious, poignant saga about growing up under American apartheid, and how it affected progressive whites and disenfranchised, beleaguered, besieged Blacks grappling with Jim Crow. (If any of you out there in review-land have better recollections than your critic and do remember KKKers being onscreen or on page, please email in a comment to correct the record.)
The basic plot of Mockingbird is that a (symbolically) maimed and named African American, Tom Robinson (Max Lawrence plays the character who shares the same last name as the baseball great who broke the color barrier), is wrongfully accused of brutally beating and raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell (Claire Bryett Andrew). Her father Bob Ewell (Thad Geer) is a redneck bigot straight out of central casting.
Defying the racists of fictional Maycomb, Alabama attorney Atticus Finch – who believes that the law is our great equalizer – defends Tom. Atticus is a solo father raising tomboy Scout and Jem (the boyish Clint Blakely alternates in the older brother role with Matthew O’Rourke), who is assisted by the Finches’ Black housekeeper, Calpurnia (Earnestine Phillips). (FYI, Calpurnia was the name of Julius Caesar’s wife, which was probably Lee’s way of conferring “emperor-like” status on the majestic small town lawyer.)
At first, I’d assumed that the Theatricum chose to include Mockingbird in this summer’s repertory season to capitalize on the publication of Harper Lee’s long-awaited (half a century plus!) “new” novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” but the theatre company’s publicist explained that this choice was actually made prior to the announcements regarding Lee’s “long, lost” book. This production is nevertheless not only fortuitous in terms of timing per Lee’s latest fiction, but mounting this show now is indicative of the fact – considering the recent murder of nine Blacks in a Charleston church and other racist incidents, many of them involving police and vigilantes – that the Theatricum has its finger on the American pulse.
Having said that, while this critic certainly recognizes that Mockingbird is a Civil Rights classic, there are some dubious elements in the plot that can be traced to Lee and are not the Theatricum’s fault. In essence, the story’s Blacks are too passive and the protagonist in this saga about racism is white. Also, if you pay close attention, the children ignore the instructions Calpurnia and another Black adult character, Rev. Sykes (Gerald C. Rivers), give them, which may be an unconscious expression of white privilege – if not exactly supremacy.
Having said that, this Mockingbird is well-acted and well-directed by Geer, whose mise-en-scene, as said, makes glorious use of Topanga’s great outdoors. Nathan Adorney’s depiction of Charles Baker “Dill” Harris illuminated an aspect of the story I’d never gotten before: Unlike Atticus’ own children, this ignored son, did not take Atticus for granted and his yearning for an attentive, moral father like him is palpable. More than Atticus’ own kids, Dill “gets” him. Adorney’s subtle performance helps us to understand why, in real life, Dill grew up to become one of our great writers, Truman Capote.
Don’t make the mistake I almost made and pass over a must-see staging of an enduring classic told from a child’s point of view. Unfortunately, much of Mockingbird’s meaning and message remains painfully relevant in an America where we still have yet to overcome, some day.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is playing in repertory through Sept. 27 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.