BWW Review: No Matter the Adaptation, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Still Packs a Punch
Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird has been much in the news of late, what with a brand spanking new Broadway production (written by Aaron Sorkin and which opened this past December) and reports of dozens of productions around the world of the stage adaptation written by Christopher Sergel being shuttered due to threats of legal action from Scott Rudin, producer of the new Broadway version, and attorneys for the Harper Lee estate.
Since Sergel first adapted Lee's novel for the stage, it has become a favorite of regional and community theaters across the globe. Lee's book is among the most popular works of fiction ever written and its treatment of Depression era life in Alabama has been heralded for its candor and incisive examination of issues that have roiled popular culture in this country for centuries. Particularly now, in light of the tenor of the times of the post-Obama era, the message found in Lee's tome is prescient and timely, even if controversial thanks to its very definition as a "white savior" narrative that seems oddly out of touch with contemporary belief systems.
In fact, one could argue that To Kill A Mockingbird is even more controversial today because Atticus Finch, the book's central figure, rises above commonplace racial stereotypes in fictional Maycomb, Alabama, in 1935 in order that he might "save the day" as the champion for a poor black man wrongly accused of the rape of a young woman who practically defines the phrase "poor white trash" in Lee's novel. That should be controversy enough, one would think, to raise questions about the script's resonance in 2019.
But with producer Rudin and representatives of the Lee estate running around, demanding rights be yanked from earnest theater companies around the world, outrage is sparked anew. Attorneys for the estate and Rudin point to a clause in a 1969 contract between Lee and Dramatic Publishing (the Woodstock, Illinois-based company holding rights to the Sergel script), which prevents productions of Sergel's adaptation "within 25 miles of cities that had a population of 150,000 or more in 1960 (the last census year before the 1969 agreement was signed) while a 'first-class dramatic play' based on the novel is playing in New York or on tour," according to an Associate Press report.
And that, gentle readers, is why Sergel's version of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, currently running at Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre, continues through March 23. Prior to opening, Roxy artistic director Ryan Bowie, who directs the company's 2019 rendition, said he'd been assured by the powers that be at Dramatic Publishing that all was well and good with the contract he'd signed months earlier.
What this means, of course, is that To Kill A Mockingbird remains an important part of the American literary and dramatic canon, playing to audiences made up of people who either love the book or the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck as bespectacled Atticus or, perhaps, both versions. In fact, rarely does a theater season go by in the mid-South that some theater company doesn't include To Kill A Mockingbird among its offerings.
Like Steel Magnolias - another Southern-themed theatrical endeavor given to over-production by regional theater companies - To Kill A Mockingbird will continue to sell tickets because the story is so beloved, its message so timely, that audiences look to it for inspiration and validation.
That's exactly what they'll find in Roxy Regional Theatre's current production of To Kill A Mockingbird, which Bowie directs with confidence to hit all the necessary tropes expected by his loyal audiences in Clarksville. Starring John Adkison in the role of Atticus Finch, the story unspools at a good pace as a rapt audience hangs on every phrase uttered by Bowie's estimable ensemble of actors over the course of two-plus hours.
Adkison's Atticus is warm and compassionate, to be sure, and he interacts with the trio of young actors playing his children and their newfound friend Dill - Wesley Kettle as Jem, Georgia Litaker (who shares her role with Katie Stafford) as Jean Louise aka Scout, and Charlie Olita as Dill (the character Lee based upon her own childhood pal Truman Capote) - with a palpable sense of paternalism and the gravitas of being a good man (as we Southerners recognize such an individual), while staunchly defending his client Tom Robinson (Lyeneal Griffin skillfully plays the young man who's wrongfully accused of sexual assault) in a 1935 Alabama courtroom where the prejudices and biases of society loom large, no matter how distasteful they are.
If one doesn't watch the action play out onstage in To Kill A Mockingbird with disdain for the past we struggle with every day of our ever-loving lives in the American South, your cheeks burning with the fire of countless moments of embarrassment and regret for what came before us, then all is for naught. And Lee's motivations to create such a seminal work of art and literature were misguided and wasted.
For one to view To Kill A Mockingbird from the vantage point of 2019 is indeed a challenge: I can't help but wonder how in the Sam Hill Atticus Finch could have ever thought it was a good idea for his kids to walk home alone through the dark after a school agricultural pageant, especially after the local lowlife known as Bob Ewell has threatened him, is beyond me. Atticus has some explaining to do before I'll be nominating him for any father of the year awards, let me assure you.
But my perspective is skewed, thanks to the times in which I've come of age and which are far different from the world in which Harper Lee spent her formative years. Thus, one can either put on some blinders (in order to accept Atticus' sometimes condescending tone when dealing with Tom and Sergel's pandering to the bleeding hearts in the audience) and accept the script as written, or to view it through the lens of the 21st century. Sergel's script may be slow as molasses at times, its treatment of minorities typical of the historical parameters which constrain the play and novel, or perhaps considered as so much fodder for literary criticism.
Yet the impact of To Kill A Mockingbird remains as potent as ever: Whenever Boo Radley (played with gentle power by Ian Alexander Erbe) emerges from the Finch home and asks, tentatively and quietly, "Miss Jean Louise, would you take me home?" the full effect of what you've just witnessed hits home and, if you're a sentimental fool like me, chances are your emotions get the better of you. You can grouse all you want about the whitewashing (pun intended) of civil rights issues in the South of the Jim Crow Era, To Kill A Mockingbird continues to pack a punch that will have you reconsidering everything you thought you knew about the societal divide between the haves and the have-nots.
In addition to Adkison's pitch-perfect performance, Griffin is terrific as Tom Robinson and Caitie L. Moss virtually stops the show as the neglected and abused Mayella Ewell. Erbe is effective as prosecutor Mr. Gilmer, but really makes an impression as Boo Radley, the misunderstood and painfully shy neighborhood character who provides so much mystery and intrigue in Lee's novel that you long for such a portrayal in Sergel's stage adaptation.
Alexandra West is good, but under-utilized, as Calpurnia, the Finch family housekeeper, and Kathy Watts is effective as neighborhood gadfly Miss Maudie. Walker Snow Harrison delivers a rakish performance as sheriff Heck Tate and Brian Best is memorable as Judge Taylor (but is even more impressive as poor farmer Walter Cunningham).
Finally, what a welcome sight it is to see Linda Ellis Cunningham, a longtime Roxy favorite, onstage - however briefly - as Mrs. DuBose. Her performance is the most authentic to be found among Bowie's skilled ensemble of actors.
To Kill A Mockingbird. Dramatized by Christopher Sergel from the book by Harper Lee. Directed by Ryan Bowie. Presented by Roxy Regional Theatre, Clarksville. Through March 23. For details, go to www.roxyregionaltheatre.org or call (931) 645-7699. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
About the show Based on Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning coming-of-age novel about a man wrongly convicted and persecuted for a crime on the basis of his skin color, To Kill A Mockingbird opened at the Roxy Regional Theatre on Friday, March 8.
Adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel and directed by Ryan Bowie, To Kill A Mockingbird opens in the sleepy Alabama town of Maycomb in the midst of the Great Depression, where Scout and her brother, Jem, live with their widowed father, Atticus Finch. Reminiscent of a bygone era, the play immerses viewers in a simpler time as the children play outside in the summer, act out stories and muse about their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley.
The facade of the seemingly peaceful town begins to crack when a young black man, Tom Robinson, is accused of a terrible crime. Driven by an unshakeable moral conviction, local lawyer Atticus defends the innocent man in a trial that sends violent waves through the community. Timeless and lingering, this hard-hitting work explores prejudice, compassion and the courage to do what is right, even when it comes at great cost.
Performances run through March 23 on Thursdays at 7 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday, March 16 and March 23. This production contains adult subject matter and offensive language within a historically accurate context.
Tickets are $25 (adults) and $15 (ages 13 and under) and may be reserved online at www.roxyregionaltheatre.org, by phone at (931) 645-7699, or at the theatre during regular box office hours (9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, and one hour prior to curtain).