Theater

The stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird doesn't do the story justice

To Kill a Mockingbird is an institution, a revered American novel that's a must for every high-school curriculum, the inspiration for a well-loved film starring Gregory Peck and scripted by Horton Foote. Mockingbird has influenced discussions of race ever since Harper Lee's novel first appeared in 1960; idealistic lawyers like Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center entered the field because they were influenced by the noble protagonist, Atticus Finch, and his defense of a black man accused of rape in the racist small town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. Unfortunately, Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation, like so many novel-to-play enterprises, is a plodding, static affair. While the book's characters are brought to life by Lee's vivid, poetic description, the characters on stage are flat — and it's hard to believe that anyone, anywhere, ever really spoke as they do.

The story is narrated by an adult version of Finch's adoring daughter, Scout. As six-year-old Scout and her brother, Jem, play with an eccentric visiting boy called Dill (inspired by Lee's real-life friend, Truman Capote), speculate on a reclusive neighbor and struggle to fathom their father's work and the mysteries of the grown-up world, the narrator hovers benignly, sometimes smiling ruefully, sometimes mirroring young Scout's movements and expressions. It's charming at first, less so as the evening progresses. The second act, in which Finch defends Tom Robinson, the alleged rapist, is more involving, though the characters remain unconvincing. Finch is consistently noble, dispassionate and courteous, Tom humble, polite and subdued. If the man is terrified — he's barely escaped a lynching, after all — he doesn't show it. His accuser, Mayella Ewell, is a cringing, nasty creature, whose abuse at her father's hands doesn't excuse her lies. And her father, Bob, is a monster, pure and simple: full of ignorant rage, and probably the drooling product of generations of inbreeding. The story's famed empathy for the underdog doesn't extend to issues of poverty and class.

Like Tom, most of the black characters are primarily window dressing. The Finches' maid, Calpurnia, is strict but loving, with no apparent life or inclinations of her own. During the trial, a group of black townspeople sit in the balcony like a Greek chorus — except they don't even get to comment. Obviously, the novel is a product of its time, and for that time, it was highly advanced. But our thinking on race has become more complex by now — more bitter and divided in some quarters, more enlightened in others — and we have reams of writing by eloquent black thinkers and historians to enlighten us.

Sergel's script doesn't suggest any of this, but insightful direction could rescue the play, giving contour to characters like Bob and suggesting unspoken currents between the races. Sabin Epstein's production, however, is as straightforward and unimaginative as a preachy after-school special — with no nuance, no subtext, no surprises of any kind — and it squanders some of the town's best talents. John Hutton is perfectly cast as Finch, and he gives a strong, dignified performance, but since we've no real idea what motivates the man, his righteousness becomes tiresome by the show's end. Mike Hartman's Bob has an exhilarating energy but doesn't seem particularly different from the scores of violent, ignorant batterers we're always encountering on screen and stage. Kathleen M. Brady has the one-note role of nasty-tempered neighbor Mrs. Dubose, and Lawrence Hecht that of a typical Southern prosecutor. No one conveys depth of feeling better than Kim Staunton, but her Calpurnia is played straight. William Hahn, so good at both chilling and charming us when he wants to, gets a few sentimental minutes as Boo Radley at the play's end. And as Reverend Sykes, the miraculous Charles Weldon — whom we'd be seeing on stage a thousand times more often if there were any justice in the world — gets to sit through almost the entire second act in silence, his face in shadow. — Wittman

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman