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Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Pantages Theatre

Review: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at Pantages Theatre

Harper Lee's legacy lives on in touring production of Broadway hit

For fans of drama - stage or cinematic - there can be few experiences more satisfying than witnessing the seamless melding of actor and role, particularly in a role that has already been identity-stamped by someone else. Nearly from the second he takes the stage in Aaron Sorkin's stage adaptation of Harper Lee'S TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Richard Thomas establishes himself as being comfortably at home both in the clothing and in the moral garb of Atticus Finch. A man who defends the cause of justice and righteousness even in a time and place where no justice can be won, Atticus is a man who is both simple and complicated. Lawyer, community pilar, widower, father, southern sage, the man quietly carries a lot of weight. Gregory Peck wore that light colored suit - and the onus - with distinction. Now, in this new adaptation of MOCKINGBIRD, the mantel has been passed to the play's original star Jeff Daniels and - on tour - to Thomas.

Although he is a Broadway veteran, we SoCal playgoers have been fortunate to see Thomas work his magic. Whether he is acting in the works of Shakespeare (Thomas was part of the first Peter Hall company that played the Ahmanson Theatre), classic revivals or contemporary plays, Thomas excels at executing seemingly mild-mannered characters who tap into a fire within. It's been a minute, but it was Thomas's careful but crusading Juror #8 during the 2006 tour of TWELVE ANGRY MEN, who convinced his fellow jury members, one by one, that a Black man accused of murder might not be guilty after all. Atticus Finch is a different individual, certainly, but when Thomas readies an argument for the jury or a hard truth for the young Finches, the world is in good hands.

As it happens, in this arresting and greatly relevant production directed by Bartlett Sher, Atticus Finch doesn't shoulder the entire dramatic heft of Lee's tale on his own. MOCKINGBIRD is well-known as a courtroom drama, certainly, but it's also a memory play charting the moral awakening of the play's adolescent narrator, Jean Marie "Scout" Finch, and her older brother Jem. During a summer in Maycomb, Alabama in 1934, the kids watch as their father, Atticus, defends Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of raping a white woman, and experience the fallout both of the trial itself and of Atticus's participation in it. Along with a new friend Dill Harris, Scout and Jem spend their days dashing across Macon, on and off other people's property, following their father in and out of the courthouse. They always ending up back at the haven that is the Finch's house where housekeeper, Calpurnia waits to give them the attention, the protection, the life lessons and the comfort that Atticus is too busy or too closed off to supply.

At the Pantages Theatre, where the MOCKINGBIRD tour plays through Nov. 27 (the production will also be at the Sgerstrom Center for the Arts starting December 27), Miriam Buether's set morphs easily between a sterile courtroom that feels almost jail-like and the community hub that is the Finch's stoop. With Scout and Jem watching the action from some hidden corner, Atticus takes meetings with community members, the trial's judge, law enforcement, angry citizenry, you name it. Scout and Jem don't always understand exactly what they're witnessing during these meetings, or the dangers they face, but we in the audience sure do. Sorkin has re-constructed Lee's narrative in flashback form, jumping back and forth between Atticus and Tom Robinson in the trial and the adventures of Scout, Jem and Dill. And of course the two stories constantly intersect as Scout and Jem are constantly interacting with community folks who are involved in the trial.

As Jem and Dill, Justin Mark and Steven Lee Johnson look physically much older than their characters, but they capture the boys' essences of brashness and curiosity. Mark's Jem is on the cusp of manhood and Johnson infuses Dill both with a quirkiness and wisdom beyond his years - wisdom that gobsmacks even Atticus. Tomboyish in her overalls and bob, Melanie Moore nicely balances Scout's feistiness and innocence. The lady can carry off a ham costume (Ann Roth's costumes are excellent) and deftly break up a near lynching with an innocent remark to a klansman: "I go to school with your boy. Tell him 'hey' for me."

Even if we know the outcome of Tom Robinson's trial (and a new generation of people who don't know Lee's novel may not), director Bartlett Sher stages the trial scenes with plenty of urgency as prosecutor Horace Gilmer (Luke Smith) and Thomas's Atticus go toe to toe. As Tom Robinson, Yaegel T. Welch lands a blow for dignity and decency. In Welch's work we see a man who lives to do right by other people no matter who they are or how badly they treat him in return. The production's other prominent African American character, Calpurnia, quietly runs the Finch household and even stands up to Atticus when she senses he isn't seeing things correctly. Jacqueline Williams makes her a presence, conveying more with a stare, a nod or a few choice words than others could with a full monolog.

"You can't understand another man," Atticus is fond of saying, "until you've stood in his shoes." Perhaps Atticus's second most-quoted line, it's a poignant sentiment for Scout and Jem who see what life is like not just from a civil rights perspective, but also within the lives of drunks, outcasts, dowagers and dirt-poor farmers. Case in point: Scout's encounter with Link Deas (Jeff Still, outstanding), a store owner and witness for the defense whose alcoholism doesn't cloud his sense of right vs. wrong. And incidentally, what a very cool link to the legacy of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD it is to have Mary Badham (who played Scout in the 1962 movie) on board as the Mrs. Henry Dubose, the Finch's child-hating neighbor.

Bottom line, the treasures of this MOCKINGBIRD are bountiful for those new to the story and for those who cherish its legacy.

Harper Lee'S TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD plays through November 27 at the Pantages Theatre.

Photo of Richard Thomas and Melanie Moore by Julieta Cervantes.



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