BWW Reviews: A Strong TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Harrisburg Shakespeare Co.
When Harper Lee published "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1960, it was an instant bestseller as well as a Pulitzer Prize winner, later voted Best Novel Of The 20th Century by readers of Library Journal. The well-known story of childhood, racial prejudice, and the law in the Deep South of the Depression was an instant classic. So, of course, was the 1962 movie based upon the novel, starring Gregory Peck as lawyer Atticus Finch, one of America's great models of legal integrity. The play version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a somewhat newer bird, written by Christopher Sergel in 1990 and famously performed every year in Lee's home town of Monroeville, Alabama on the courthouse lawn (with the trial performed in the courthouse itself). Often performed on stage as if to emulate the movie, in the hands of Harrisburg Shakespeare Company and director Dan Burke, this production is really more a homage to the original novel than to the now more-familiar movie, and the effort works well.
In any performance of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD there are two central figures whose performances must be of unexceptionable caliber, Scout (Jean Louise) and Atticus Finch. Without that, any performance of Mockingbird is doomed to be a hopeless endeavor. Fortunately, Lily Peifer, who plays Scout, and artistic director Clark Nicholson, playing Atticus Finch, are both solid actors who deliver fine performances. Peifer, a local fifth-grader, already has an impressive resume behind her and invests Scout with all of the tomboyish charm that the part requires. She also brings the character the requisite naiveté that is about to be hit between the eyes by the Tom Robinson case that sets Maycomb County on edge. Nicholson is a fine actor who is able to make Finch a determined and caring attorney, concerned about his family as well, without falling into the trap of making Finch self-consciously noble. It's all too possible for an actor to play Finch as the superhero he most certainly is not, and Nicholson's restraint is admirable.
There are those literary and legal critics who hold that Atticus Finch is no hero at all, that he fails to challenge the institutionalized racism and sexism of Depression-era Alabama. But the character – and despite his enshrinement in literary, film, and legal circles as being of near-mythic greatness, he is only a character – is human, and a product of his times; that he has enough integrity not to give up on Robinson's rape case, that he is able to be a successful single parent to two children, that he realizes that violence is never a solution to personal or social problems, that he recognizes that African-Americans are human beings inherently worthy of respect and dignity, marks him as being that most heroic of sorts, a decent human being, of whom, regardless of era, there have always been too few. Nicholson's portrayal of Finch keeps him firmly in the camp of human being, not idol.
Peifer says of Scout that "I like that Scout is very boyish and she isn't a girly-girl. A lot of my other parts have been very girly." Nicholson notes that "playing Atticus was a blast. I purposely didn't try to play Gregory Peck. I tried approaching it from having grown up in a small Southern town [in South Carolina]. I based Atticus a lot on my grandfather, who was a magistrate."
Lesser parts are also noteworthy. Mary Sarah Agliotta is a fine Maudie Atkinson, the Finches' neighbor and part-time narrator of the on-stage events. Thomas Weaver, a Gamut/HSC veteran, is equally well-cast as Heck Tate, the well-meaning sheriff of Maycomb County, whose heart is in the right place regardless of events. Other fine performances come from Louis Riley III as falsely-accused Tom Robinson, Matt Thomsen as accuser Bob Ewell, and Megan Massie as alleged victim Mayella Ewell. A particularly nice additional casting choice was that of fourth-grader Patrick Caffrey as Dill, who will grow up, unbeknownst to the characters of the story, in real life to be novelist Truman Capote. Caffrey brings a certain charming reality to Dill's imaginative ramblings, suggesting the writer the real character will one day become.
Megan Massie notes, "I've done a lot of victim roles in the past. Mayella's a victim, too – but she's not innocent. And she's got such a past, I grew up in a wonderful, loving family, so it was such a challenge" playing Mayella, who may or may not have been raped, but who is certainly a victim of some form or another of family abuse. Notes Thomsen, who plays her father, "It's always fun playing the villain, but in this it's also tiring. Here I get to unleash the portion of myself that's unfit for polite society. Ewell unleashes some powerful emotions."
Thomas Weaver, scenic coordinator and technical director, has designed an extremely well-thought-out set for this production, redolent of heat, humidity, and the financial woes of 1930's Alabama. Its use of multiple levels to create streets, courtroom balconies, and the like is particularly sound, especially for the limited stage space available.
Having read the book or seen the film is no prerequisite for enjoying the play, which stands quite well on its own. If anything, recollections of the movie, now enjoying its 50th anniversary re-release, may get in the way, as this production of the play is based upon the book. All three versions of the well-known story deserve their own consideration. It's well worth spending the time to consider this particular one, if you have the chance.
At Harrisburg Shakespeare Company through November 19. For tickets, call Gamut at 717-238-4111 or visit www.gamutplays.org.
Graphic credit: Gamut Plays