BWW Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at KAVINOKY THEATRE Still Powerful And Timely
Just as an American classic will always persevere, Buffalo's Kavinoky Theatre has triumphed in finally being able to present Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. After a major kerfuffle last spring that resulted in a cease and desist order from Broadway producers, The Kav was forced to scrap their entire production of MOCKINGBIRD less than 2 weeks before opening night. A highly lauded production by Aaron Sorkin was and still is playing on the Great White way, and for questionable reasons, Buffalo was forced to shut down the Lee play. Happily, this season the Kav received the go ahead to produce Sorkin's version, and like a phoenix, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD has risen in a gripping and superbly acted production.
Ms. Lee's story of race, injustice, inequality, miscegenation, and youthful hope has long been taught in schools. Mention Atticus Finch, and everyone thinks of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. In Sorkin's adaptation, Finch's his two children, Scout (Aleks Malejs) and Jem (Michael Seitz,) tell the story from their point of view as adults looking back, but also jump into the action as children. Taking place in Alabama in 1935, a young black man named Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white girl in her home and is taken to court to decide his fate. Attorney Atticus Finch (Chris Avery) defends Tom in a court case that is decided by a jury of 12 white men. The language is strong and reflective of the period, so getting used to the N--- word being tossed about makes the audience aghast and uncomfortable, as they should be. But this was a dark and different time in American history. Despite the Civil War having ended 50 years prior, the idea of slavery and Black people being of an inferior race still pervaded. A group of Ku Klux Klan demonstrating and threatening to drag a black man tied behind a trunk until he is dead appears to have been commonplace.
A court room drama almost always engages, but Lee also provides many interesting characters outside of the court room that fully flesh out the riveting story. Ms. Malejs is brilliant as the tom boy daughter of Atticus, seamlessly weaving in and out of the drama as young and old Scout. Her bond with Jem is deep, and Seitz does a fine job as the confounded brother who can't fathom the injustices that are happening around him. Chris Avery quite simply embodies Atticus, with a slight Southern drawl, he is always in control with a commanding presence on stage. When he does lose his cool, it is for good reason and completely credible. Mr. Avery's nuanced performance carries with it a depth of emotions and justice that allows him to stand out as a progressive figure in an otherwise regressive town.
Robyn Baun is Mayella Ewell, the supposed victim. Ms. Baun is riveting in her court room scene, perfectly casting enough doubt as to what really occurred in her home the day of the crime. Her lack of education and backwater upbringing by an abusive father Bob Ewell, playing with startling realism by Patrick Moltane, further magnifies the social class inequities. When Moltane makes an an entrance, his menacing nature causes unrest and suspicion, just by his very nature and appearance. The prosecuting attorney Mr. Gilmer is deftly played by Ray Boucher, who exudes a superiority and confidence that would only be appreciated by his all white jury.
David Lundy is spot on as the town drunk, Link Dees. His deposition in the court room provides a great amount of information, but after the verdict is read, his interactions with the children is gut wrenching. The generational divide sheds a glimmer of hope. The Finch children have befriended young Dill (Jacob Albarella), who is visiting his aunt for the summer, but comes from a broken home, where he is forever hoping to meet his dad. Albarella brings a child like naivete to the role that allows for tears and excitement at the drop of a hat. The three youngsters offer a beacon of optimism, in a town that still is living in the past.
Xavier Harris is Tom, the accused criminal on trial. His brief scene where he recounts his version of the story was engrossing. Harris' soft spoken voice and polite demeanor was ideal for this drama. But today's audience is challenged with adopting the attitude of what a white male juror would think of his story in 1935-- a tall order to say the least. Just how far race relations have progressed, and regressed, leaves a plight like Tom's unfathomable for a Northern 21st century audience.
Shantinna Moore is the Finch's housekeeper, Calpurnia, the only other Black character in the play. Her interactions with Atticus are fascinating, given his progessive ideas and respect for Calpurnia. When Moore speaks her mind, it is with an assured respect for her employer, but not devoid of realism as she herself lives with daily oppression.
Set Design by David King includes moving scrim like panels that allow for projections to set the scene, while Brian Cavanagh's lighting focuses the action with precision. Costuming by Jessica Wegryzn is detailed and finely executed.
Director Kyle LoConti has a remarkable cast with which to work. She paces the near 3 hour play with precision, ensuring a genuine Southern flair without being disrespectful. Townspeople fill out the court rooms scenes, while colorful characters like the cranky Mrs DuBose, superbly played by Mary McMahon, help us understand the mind set of the town. We truly believe that Atticus is a good man, steeped in what is right and wrong, even when his own children briefly come into some issues with the law. Ms. LoConti has guided the large cast into a cohesive community indicative of Southern Americana.
The Kav's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a gripping piece of theatre that deserves to be seen. Lee's messages still cause the viewer to take pause and re-examine the social and racial injustices that existed in 1935, but still continue to fill the today's news. Mass murders in Black churches and disparities in the legal rights of whites versus blacks should speak volumes on how much work still needs to be done in this country.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD plays at The Kavinoky Theatre on the campus of D'Youville College through Dec 8, 2019. Contact kavinokytheatre.com for more information