Feature: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Ohio Theatre

Actor makes his Mark as Jem in Aaron Sorkin’s updated version of the Harper Lee classic

By: Jun. 03, 2023
Feature: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Ohio Theatre

Actor Justin Mark doesn’t remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird when he was in high school. Now he’s living in an English teacher’s twisted, TWILIGHT ZONEish fantasy, as he performed in the Harper Lee classic over 500 times in the last two years.

Mark plays Jem, Atticus Finch’s son, in Aaron Sorkin’s updated version of To Kill a Mockingbird. The show runs June 6-11 at the Ohio Theatre (39 E. State Street in downtown Columbus).

“I'm one who always has to be honest,” Mark confessed sheepishly in a telephone interview from New Orleans. “I don't remember reading it in high school.

“I wasn't the best student then. During my free periods, the teacher would let me go off to the theater and work on monologues, instead of doing my homework. Perhaps I was supposed to read it but I’m not sure if I read it or not.”

When he landed the role of Jem, Mark purchased a copy of the book. Even after 500 shows, he is amazed by Lee’s words and Sorkin’s adaptation of them.

Mark is not surprised To Kill a Mockingbird still resonates with its audience.

“I think we've got a lot of unpacked baggage when it comes to race in this country,” he said. “The last few years mirrors this fictional story set in 1930s Alabama. I don't know why change takes so long.”

Getting the audience to face those truths is a part of the challenge Mark and his cast members face every show. Playing the role of Atticus Finch is Richard Thomas, the iconic actor known for portraying John Boy on the Seventies classic THE WALTONS. In an interesting twist, Mary Badham, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Scout in the 1962 classic version of To Kill a Mockingbird, plays the cankerous Mrs. Dubose in this production.

Often actors are much different people from the characters they play. That is good news for Mark, whose small screen debut was playing a serial killer on FBI: MOST WANTED.

 However, Mark said Thomas is living proof that sometimes art does imitate life. Thomas is, according to the actor, as good natured off stage as he was as John Boy or as he is as Atticus Finch.

“He’s the nicest guy in the world, and he brings a real sense of optimism to the role,” Mark said. “Even though the audience knows this story and how it's going to end, he does a wonderful job of making us believe that, perhaps, tonight could be different. You need that optimism to guide us through the show.”

 Mark provides the counter punches to Thomas’ optimism as a son who is discovering he doesn’t always agree with his dad’s ways.

“He brings the optimism and I bring the questioning,” he said. “That’s a fun dynamic to play with every night.”

Mark, Melanie Moore (Scout Finch), and Steven Lee Johnson (Dill Harris) play the youth roles of the play, forcing the trio to regress back to their preteens. Having adults play the children of To Kill a Mockingbird presents a unique task for the trio.

“The big challenge to me is not doing a voice and the little kid kind of acting,” Mark said. “I want it to feel real.

“I remember being that age and you certainly think you're an adult. They may not always be flushed out, but your opinions are extraordinarily strong. The biggest challenge for me is to just remember that.”

When he was around Jem’s age, Mark was discovering the joys of theater for the first time. He landed a role in a middle school production of ANNIE because he could juggle. From that moment, he was hooked.

“In middle school I had a great drama teacher (Shannon Derry), who challenged me with interesting, fun material,” Mark said. “He gave our class that type of material because he could tell we were all invested in acting.

“I liked watching people standing in the wings, getting ready to go on stage. It was like they were stepping into some imaginary world. I just became obsessed with acting ever since.”

As he grew older, Mark did high school shows and even earned $400 to perform with a professional group in Portland. Upon graduation, he was accepted into the prestigious Julliard School in New York City.

Around the time he was getting ready to leave the school, Mark lost one of his biggest supporters -- his grandmother Beverly Mark.

“I had an unconventional childhood being raised by my grandmother,” he said. “She passed away right at that moment when I was getting ready to graduate and try to make it in New York City.

“That might have been the hardest thing I had to overcome. We all must realize at some point you're on your own and you must build a life for yourself.”

These days that life includes a bevy of hotel rooms and bus trips around the country. Mark learned he was picked for To Kill a Mockingbird at the intermission of PETER PAN AND WENDY, a show he was performing in Washington D.C.

Here the story takes a downward twist.

“The only bad part about that story is I was cast in December of 2019, and we were going to go into rehearsals in the summer of 2020,” he said. “That didn't happen.

“I was super excited but then the world shut down. A lot of this cast were selected pre-COVID, so to get to do this show with people who stuck with it because they really care about it is incredibly special.”





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