Yeah, you think you already know the story. You've heard it ... and heard it, and would rather leave it to book clubs and the seventh grade to sort through. But no matter how familiar the story may be, you won't want to miss TheatreWorks' latest production of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
This classic tale follows Tom Robinson, a young black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Although Mayella's case is flawed and there's no evidence against Tom, his case is doomed before it even begins. Though Tom's defender, Atticus Finch, exudes integrity, the townspeople come to bitterly resent him for defending a black man. Much of this we see through the eyes of Finch's children, Scout and Jeremy, and their friend Dill.
The play opens with gorgeous gospel singing as the church congregation (performed by Nicole Benton, Ciara Johnson, Katrice Thompson, Martin West and Arlethia Friday, as Helen Robinson) take the stage. They are joined by Shelly Burl, who's stunning as the no-nonsense nanny Calpurnia. Something in their entrance explains the importance of staging this story -- taking it out of the realm of discussion and into the physical world where our senses most vividly make distinctions.
Like the Stevie Wonder line, "Her clothes are old but never are they dirty," if you're black in Maycomb, you can't ever drop your guard. For the Robinsons it's a starched-and-pressed standard only, but the unkempt Ewells know that the code of racism falls in their favor, and for them anything goes. It's details like this difference in costuming (all designed by Betty Ross) that make the staging so visceral and bring a poignant contextual meaning to the phrase "white trash."
But beyond the obvious theme of racial tension, Mockingbird is also a coming-of-age story that examines the conflicts of the adult world as seen through children's eyes. These aren't JonBenet Ramsey target-market children; they're full characters unpatronizingly portrayed with genuine concerns about the complexities of the world.
Luckily for us, the young actors portraying them are more than up to the task of these characters. Christina LaFon is a fantastic Scout, Blake Pfeil has the natural storyteller in him for his role as Jeremy Finch, and Michael Fraser is a pure delight as Dill (supposedly, the reclusive Harper Lee based the character of Dill on Truman Capote, the bright-eyed boy with a typewriter who grew up next door to her). This production is so full of fantastic performances that it comes off a bit like a variety show with every performer a rising star.
Leah Chandler-Mills brings her wit and charms to her portrayal of Maude, the Finch's benevolent neighbor.
Jay Campbell rises to the role of Atticus Finch, the tall standing citizen/lawyer, and he's truly a joy to watch.
Christopher Earls is perfect as the soft-spoken Tom Robinson.
Set and lighting designer Nancy Hankin captures the milky southern light of rural Alabama, adding depth to a pretty small theater. In a smart staging move, the audience becomes the jury for the trial scene.
Also worth noting is the fact that director Katie Damp, finding both the original stage script and the movie script to be weaker than the book, decided to combine elements of each and make her own version of the play together with the cast and crew. Taking this kind of poetic license makes the performance less pat and breathes an evident freedom into the whole production.
If you've ever read To Kill a Mockingbird, or are just now reading it for the Pikes Peak Public Library District's "All Pikes Peak Reads" program, don't miss this opportunity to see Harper Lee's characters come to life in this vital work in the canon of civil rights literature.
-- Marina Eckler