Trial of the Century

A new staging of To Kill a Mockingbird holds its own.

Atticus Finch is perhaps the only resident of Depression-era Maycomb, Alabama, who believes that it's possible to live by high-minded principles. He doesn't merely espouse empty eloquence -- the Southern lawyer accepts "payments" of turnip greens, hickory nuts and firewood from a dirt-poor farmer who desperately needs legal help he can't afford. An avowed pacifist, the fortysomething Atticus insists that his adolescent children refrain from fighting and instead make an effort to see things as their adversaries might -- even when an embittered, cancer-ridden neighbor and a foul-mouthed schoolboy hurl epithets at Atticus that would boil the blood of the most charitable adult. And when some of the townsfolk hold Atticus in ugly contempt for agreeing to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, the main character in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird tries twice as hard to stick to his guns without compromising the interests of justice and peace.

While it might be difficult to understand why Atticus subjects himself to such scorn, a performer who plays the part must also contend with the unsettling realization that he's inhabiting a role that earned Gregory Peck an Oscar in the 1962 film version. Happily, local actor Paul Borrillo's turn in the Arvada Center's sold-out production radiates with conviction, charisma and, most of all, abiding self-respect.

Whether he's dealing with his children's day-to-day crises, the community's brewing concerns or the legal system's intricate workings, Borrillo imbues each scene with a remarkable empathy that humanizes Atticus's professorial musings. Borrillo doesn't respond with righteous indignation or even parental reproach when Atticus's headstrong daughter, Scout, is troubled by a neighbor boy's comments and innocently asks him, "Do you defend niggers?" Instead, he involves Scout in a dilemma that she will undoubtedly have to deal with someday, guilelessly asking her, "Now, if I didn't defend him, I couldn't have much respect for myself, could I?" Later, when an angry mob confronts Atticus while he guards the jailhouse door armed with only a newspaper, his children learn the wisdom of defusing a potentially violent situation by viewing matters through another's eyes, a lesson that Borrillo gently illustrates by observing, "I guess you made him stand in my shoes for a minute." And rather than turn Atticus's closing argument into a fiery lecture, Borrillo handles the episode as if it were a heartfelt appeal to common decency.

But as moving as Borrillo's performance is, his efforts, as well as those of the fine supporting cast, are sometimes undercut by director David Payne's formless staging. Although a few of Payne's mistakes seem minor (including incidental music that sounds like it belongs in a Western movie), some, like the decision to stage the father-daughter talks on a porch swing that faces away from two thirds of the audience, seriously compromise the drama's power and sweep. Furthermore, the famous courtroom scene, which is the focus of much of Act Two, seems more like a skull session for an amateur debating society instead of a high-stakes trial with life-or-death consequences, especially since the dangerously zealous prosecutor comes off like a pip-squeak car salesman. And Payne elicits a portrayal of defendant Tom Robinson (played as best as can be by the talented Cajardo Lindsey) that's more whiny self-pity than dignified defiance. As a result, there's not much tension as the trial proceedings grow more and more confrontational, or when an angry white man spits in Atticus's face. Nor do the halls of justice reverberate with quiet grandeur when, out of respect for Atticus, the town's black residents rise to their feet as he makes his post-verdict exit.

Directorial gaffes notwithstanding, several winning performances lend understanding and warmth to Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning story (adapted for the stage by Christopher T. Sergel). Sara Smith delivers a portrayal of Scout that's entertaining and touching, as is Jeremy Palmer's take on her gangly brother, Jem. Billie McBride endows the role of the narrator, Miss Maudie, with homespun elegance and interacts with the townsfolk in ways that underscore the play's themes: "We're paying your father the highest tribute we can," she says to Scout. "We trust him to do right." Patty Mintz Figel properly sinks to the occasion when the ailing Mrs. Dubose tells Atticus's children, "Your father is no better than the trash he works for." As someone who actually deserves to wear the label of "trash" (albeit a more privileged brand), Denis Berkfeldt is appropriately reprehensible as the venomous Tom Ewell. As his spiteful daughter (and alleged rape victim), Mayella, Sara McGuire easily locates a fluttery willingness to rely on whatever version of the truth will keep her out of harm's way. Though not provided with many lines, Gwen Harris is a tower of strength and compassion as the Finches' housekeeper, Calpurnia. Jamie Milholland is likable and convincing as lawman Heck Tate; at a recent performance, he earned a smattering of applause when Heck declares that he's inclined to see a certain awful truth differently than does the straight-shooting Atticus. And as Judge Taylor, Ric Jury is delicately officious and comically blunt.

As performed against designer Laura K. Love's fanciful setting, which consists of a large magnolia tree, faux-dirt road and cluster of clapboard houses, the two-hour-plus show effectively articulates what happens when ignorance and fear give rise to prejudice and injustice. Led by Borrillo's compelling portrait, the drama also gives full expression to that mysterious repository of human goodness that Abraham Lincoln referred to as "the better angels of our nature."

 
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