BWW Review: Gloucester Stage Season Closes Strong with TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
To Kill a Mockingbird
From the novel by Harper Lee, Stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel, Directed by Judy Braha; Assistant Director, Tim Spears; Set Design, Jon Savage; Lighting Design, John Malinowski; Costume Design, Chelsea Kerl; Sound Design, David Wilson; Fight Design, Robert Walsh; Properties Design, Misaki Nishimiya; Stage Manager, Jenna Worden
CAST (in alphabetical order): Cliff Blake, Douglass Bowen-Flynn, Amanda Collins, Aaron Dowdy, Thomas Grenon, Thomas Rhett Kee, Teresa Langford, Gabriel Magee, Nathaniel Oaks, Cheryl D. Singleton, Stewart EVan Smith, Lewis D. Wheeler, Carly Williams
Performances through October 28 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
Not bad for a first novel. To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee's first novel, published in 1960, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It stood as her only published work until 2015, when Go Set a Watchman, an earlier draft, was released with some controversy. However, the book is an American classic that spawned a beloved film in 1962, and was adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel in 1990. Proving that it is timeless, Gloucester Stage Company concludes its 38th season with a thoughtful and thought-provoking production of Mockingbird under the direction of Judy Braha.
That a story steeped in themes of civil rights and racism in the segregated South of the 1930s resonates so loudly in 2017 is disheartening, to say the least, but Atticus Finch still stands as a symbol of virtue and integrity, and 10-year old Scout Finch represents our eternal hope for a better future. Lewis D. Wheeler's portrayal of Atticus is low-key, but he exudes a quiet strength of character and warmth toward his children. Despite the push-back he receives from townsfolk for agreeing to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman, Atticus maintains his resolve to do the right thing, teaching his kids some important life lessons along the way.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of that one summer in 1935, as seen through the eyes of Scout (Carly Williams). The play opens with a grown-up Jean Louise Finch (Amanda Collins) revisiting Maycomb, Alabama, and looking back on those events with the insight of an adult. Her narration fills us in on the carefree nature of the Finch household before the trial, when she and her older brother Jem (Nathaniel Oaks) pass the summer days with their friend Dill (Gabriel Magee). They are fascinated (and terrified) by their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley (Douglass Bowen-Flynn), but Atticus and their housekeeper Calpurnia (Cheryl D. Singleton) do their best to discourage them from bothering him. However, as kids are wont to do, they set their minds to trying to get Boo to come out of his house.
Soon, the harmless fantasies of the children are displaced by the harsh reality of the trial of Tom Robinson (Aaron Dowdy), pitting neighbor against neighbor in an ugly war of words and racist attitudes. Mayella Ewell (Teresa Langford) and her redneck father Bob Ewell (Cliff Blake), along with the slick prosecutor Mr. Gilmer (Bowen-Flynn), build a trumped-up case against Tom that Atticus methodically pokes full of holes. With his children intently watching the proceedings from the gallery, the lawyer not only casts serious doubt on the guilt of his client, he turns the lens on the accuser and her father, alleging that the latter was the actual perpetrator.
Considering the time and the place, the outcome of the trial is never truly in doubt, but it is to the credit of the playwright and these actors that the courtroom scenes are riveting and the tension builds. Langford captures a multitude of aspects of Mayella on the stand. She is shaky even when she is being sworn in, and appears like a deer in the headlights while being questioned. From there, she becomes frantic and confused, eventually erupting into a state of shouting and crying. Her entire story plays out on her face, and her fear and guilt are palpable. By contrast, Blake exudes righteous cockiness, virtually daring anyone in the courtroom not to believe his story. He is a racist redneck personified and succeeds in eliciting our disdain.
The Gloucester Stage production is most affecting because of the performances of the youngest members of the cast. Williams is entirely real and natural in the most pivotal role, and seems to be undaunted by the burden she bears. She meshes well with her stage family, stays engaged in every scene, and never appears to be "acting." As a plus, Williams and Collins resemble each other sufficiently to believe that they are the same person at different life stages, and Collins has a wide-eyed approach to the role that conveys the inner child who lived through these events. Oaks comes across as the responsible big brother, a boy on the cusp of manhood, with the ideals of his father burgeoning inside him. The scenes that feature Williams, Oaks, and Magee playing together evoke lazy summer days in a simpler time, reflecting their innocence before things change in their quiet town.
The supporting cast members all provide strong characterizations that enhance the fabric of the play. Singleton hits the right notes as the warm, supportive, and no-nonsense housekeeper; Dowdy has minimal stage time, but quietly makes an impression; Thomas Rhett Kee brings dignity to Heck Tate, the sheriff with the thankless job; Thomas Grenon does equal justice to his two roles, as Walter Cunningham, a member of the racist mob faced down by Atticus, and Judge Taylor who presides with fairness over Robinson's trial; Bowen-Flynn seamlessly transforms from the sharp prosecutor to the mysterious Boo; and Stewart EVan Smith (Reverend Sykes) represents the struggles of the black community with patience and gravitas.
Braha and the design team suggest the world of the play with minimal structures, allowing the actors to provide the shades of their characters and letting us fill in the colors from our memories and imaginations. A raised platform serves as the front stoop of the Finch home, a screen door slides on and off the set as needed, a tire swing hangs by a rope, and the courtroom is constructed before our eyes from benches, barrels, and planks of wood. The nooks and crannies of Jon Savage's set are brought in and out of our focus by John Malinowski's lighting design. Chelsea Kerl's costume design helps to define the characters and their stations. David Wilson is the sound designer and Robert Walsh serves as fight designer.
To Kill a Mockingbird is, at its core, a very good story with sharply-drawn characters who tell us who they are by their behaviors. It lends itself to the stage with the necessary conflict and dramatic elements, and successfully transcends time and place. Braha and her cast are respectful of the message and impart it with a minimum of bells and whistles. They trust the script and present Lee's characters with honesty and care. As unfortunate as it is to hear the echoes of these events in our world today, it is cathartic to experience their dramatization in an intimate theater space with people who are trying to be on the right side of history.